by Benjamin Burchall
Moral or ethical acts can be defined as those which reduce or do not cause unnecessary harm and suffering. Immoral or unethical acts are those which increase or cause unnecessary harm and suffering. Some have stated this as: “Do what you will, so long as it harms none.” Rather than being based on arbitrary rules, this kind of morality is inextricably tied to the facts of human well-being and how one’s actions impact the well-being of others.
A moral system based on what is believed to be the will of a god is by nature arbitrary, divisive and harmful because it is independent of observable and reasonably foreseeable human suffering. Rational nonbelievers base their morals on objective harm rather than on the will of a so-called god whose existence can’t be verified. Living in the real world demands nothing less!
Like many other animals humans have evolved as a social species. The well-being of the individual human is affected by the well-being of the collective. Individuals ensure their own benefit by treating each other in ways that create a social climate where they can access the necessities of life and engage in a meaningful pursuit of happiness.
A basic observation about human behavior is that the way you treat others is generally the way they will treat you. This understanding is what gives rise to the ethics of reciprocity commonly known as “The Golden Rule”. This general rule has been expressed in various formulations in probably every culture. It prescribes that the individual should treat others as she or he would want to be treated. Following this rule goes a long way in avoiding harmful behaviors and ensuring one’s own well-being in relation to others. One who follows The Golden Rule can be said to be a moral person.
Approaching the Golden Rule sensibly, one must take into account the fact that people will not always treat you or others ethically. Under those circumstances, it is proper to do to them as they are doing and/or act to protect yourself and other innocent people from being harmed. By doing so, you increase the likelihood that the offender and others who might consider taking the same harmful action in the future will not repeat the offense. This makes taking appropriate action to stop offenders from bringing harm to you and others when it is within your power a moral obligation that promotes collective well-being.
Given that life does not come wrapped in a neat little packet, everyone ocassionally finds themselves at the crossroads of competing moral choices. What should you do when preventing harm to one person or group will bring harm to another? These choices are not easy, especially if you and/or your loved ones are involved. Instinctively, we will want to give more weight to loved ones than to others in most cases and we will feel that not to do so is immoral. When all parties involved are your loved ones, the gravity of the decision can be crushing. What about when protecting someone else’s well-being will reduce or destroy your own? We honor those who sacrifice themselves to help others, but can we rightfully judge those who choose not to put their own well-being on the line for someone else?
These questions have no easy answers. A rational morality cannot offer trite rules that pretend to apply in every situation or render inherently difficult moral choices easy. Instead, it makes us more aware of the ethical choices we make and how and why we make them, so that we may make ever better decisions. My highest moral hope is that such raising of moral consciousness gives us a greater ability to find peace when our decisions do not produce the results we intend and assuage inevitable emotional anguish that accompanies the most difficult of our moral choices.