Formal Ethics 6 - Universal Law

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These questions are about Chapter 6 of Harry J. Gensler's book on FORMAL ETHICS (Routledge: 1996). These materials are copyrighted (c) 1998 by Harry J. Gensler; but they may be distributed freely.

I won't have any questions on Section 6.5 (Universal Prescriptivism), since this gets rather technical.

Self-regard and future-regard

We violate consistency if we treat others as we aren't willing to be treated. But we also violate consistency if we treat ourselves as we aren't willing to have others treat themselves. This is the self-regard principle. To use it effectively, we must imagine someone we care about acting in our place.

GR and the self-regard principle imaginatively shift the persons in the situation. But we also can shift the time -- and imagine that we now experience the future consequences of our actions. We violate consistency if we treat ourselves (in the future) as we aren't willing to have been treated by ourselves (in the past). This is the future-regard principle. More crudely: "Don't do what you'll later regret."

The formula of universal law

The formula of universal law is a generalization of the golden rule; but it also includes ideas from the self-regard and future-regard theorems. This version of the formula is derivable from our axioms:

Don't act to do A without also consenting to the idea that any exactly similar act may be done (regardless of the place of the various individuals or the time of the action).

Equivalently: Act only as you're willing for anyone to act in exactly similar circumstances -- regardless of imagined variations of time or person. (These variations include cases where you're on the receiving end of the action, where someone you care about is in your place, and where you're at some future time experiencing the consequences of the action.)

Some analogous principles

Many other formulas express roughly the same insight about morality as the golden rule and formula of universal law. These include "Love your neighbor as yourself," "Treat everyone as a brother or sister," "Treat people as ends and not just as means," "Act as if you were to live out in sequence your life and the lives of those affected by your actions," and "Act only in ways that you'd consent to if you didn't know your place in the situation."

Why follow the golden rule?

We might follow GR because we care about others and hence want to treat them in a way that respects their inherent dignity as persons. Or we might follow GR because it promotes our well-being and self-respect and earns us social approval. Or we follow GR because we see that it promotes social harmony and thus is a useful principle for society to have. Or we might recognize the inherent goodness of treating others as we want to be treated. Or we might talk about social conventions, ideal observers, or God's will. Or we might see GR as self-evident, as coherent with our moral intuitions, or as required by ideal ethical thinking. Or we might accept GR as following from further formal axioms (U, P, and R) which we've already accepted. Or we might just have positive feelings in favor of GR.

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This set has 36 problems.