Summary of the Universal Ethic
Updated 2010.

by Fred E. Foldvary


Let me begin by crediting John Locke, the main influence on my
derivation. Locke summarized the universal ethic in this passage
in his Second Treatise:

"The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it which obliges everyone; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions ..."

Locke, however, never derived this ethic, so my task is to fill in the gaps. I will also change the language so the ethic is not expressed as an "ought."

The universal ethic is derived from two sets of premises:
1) creteria; 2) empirical propositions.

An ethic is defined as a set of rules by which one judges the acts
of persons to be good, evil, or neutral. The universal ethic is
an ethic whose rules are independent of personal or cultural views.
A derivation requires criteria so that we know whether the conclusion
is indeed the u.e. The definition of the u.e. as independent of
personal views implies these four criteria:

1) It is universal, meaning that it applies to all persons.

2) It is comprehensive, meaning it applies to all acts.

3) It is logical, derived using reason, without any inconsistencies.

4) The premises are non-arbitrary, grounded in empirical reality.

The ontological basis for the universal ethic is that it uniquely
fits the criteria. If I can present an ethic that fits it, then
it is the universal ethic.

The second set of premises are those from which the ethic is derived.
Since the u.e. is by definition independent of culture, the premises
cannot be taken from actual practice or belief. The are taken from
human nature - what Locke called the "state of nature" I interpret to
be the nature of persons, or in our case, human nature.


Locke supplies two premises: human beings are all equal, and they are

independent. The premise of independence is based on the common

observation (hence empirical, based on evidence) that human biology

is such that each person functions - thinks and feels - as an

independent being. Of course we are socially and economically

interdependent, but our thinking and feeling is independent.

The second premise is that human beings have a moral equality. The

human capacity of self-awareness and choice is common to the species,

and human beings are biologically one species. Equality does not

mean equal intelligence, talent, etc. The equality is that pertaining

to human action: it is purposeful behavior, rather than behavior

governed mainly by genetic programming or instinct. This is the

equality that Jefferson wrote of in saying all men are created equal.


Independence implies that values are subjective. Equality gives our

values an equal moral standing - humans have an equal moral worth.

The third premise is that each person has a personal ethic by which

any act that one experiences or that one can imagine has a determined

moral value. Thus, each person can designate any act as good, evil,

or neutral, according to his/her own personal ethic. A personal

ethic assigns an act a value of good if that persons deems it to be

pleasing or beneficial; evil if the person feels it is harmful or

displeasing; and neutral if the act is neither good nor evil.


The moral value (good, evil, neutral) of an act is determined at the

moment it is performed. Here then is the derivation of the u.e.,

highly condensed. Those wanting the more detailed treatment can

consult my books referenced below.


First, consider acts with only beneficial external effects. A "benefit"

is defined as an act that makes a person better off from the subjective

viewpoint of the act's recipient. Since all values are subjective and

originate in personal ethics, the values assigned by the u.e. originate

with personal goods, evils, and neutrals. Hence, for external benefits,

the u.e. must assign such acts the value "good". If the u.e. assigned

the value "evil" to benefits, it would contradict the premise of.

Independence. The act cannot be neutral since neutrality implies the

absence of "good." Only an assignment of "good" is consistent with

the premises.


Note that we now have a u.e. rule for "good": acts which benefit others

are morally good. The values are taken from personal values, but the

rule itself is independent of personal views. The u.e. itself has

not created or constructed any values. Unlike the aristotelian ethic,

there is no ultimate end or objective value or standard here.


The second case consists of acts which have no externalities: they only

affect the actor. An act by Robinson Crusoe that only affects himself

cannot be assigned the value "evil", since if he chose to do it, he

must think it is a personal good or a neutral, relative to other

actions, oppoortunities, and options. An act with a short-term

disutility but long-term utility has a net positive utility, otherwise

he wouldn't do it. Since the act is not directly good or evil to

others, since they are not affected, the act can be assigned the

value of "neutral" without contradicting any premise. One could also

interpret the act as being "good", but since one cannot know a priori

whether such an act will be good or neutral to the actor, the most

general abstract value is "neutral." By extension, if two persons

engage in an act which affects no other parties, it is neutral with

respect to others and either good or neutral for the two. Generalizing,

acts among consenting persons cannot be assigned the value "evil".


The remaining case consists of acts which by personal ethics are evil,

those with negative externalities. Let an "injury" be defined as an

act which some person deems to be a personal evil. Such acts are

separated into two subsets. An "offense" is an injury whose personal

evil values depend entirely on the subjective views of the recipient.

A "harm" consists of all other injuries: these do not depend merely

on the biases, views, opinions, and culture of the recipient.


If the u.e. assigned to an offense the value "evil," u.e.-evils would

depend on personal views. This would contradict the fourth criterion,

that the u.e. must be non-arbitrary, and independent of personal views.

Hence, the u.e. assigns to offenses the value "neutral." Personal

offenses are neutralized so that the u.e. remains independent of culture.

For harms, if the injury does not originate entirely within a person's

mind, it must have also some external origin. The act must involve

some penetration from the outside to the inside of a person's domain.

Such an act is an invasion. (Note that benefits are also penetrations,

but these are welcomed.) An invasion is not welcomed - it is coercive,

meaning done against the will of the recipient. Hence, an invasion

is a "coercive harm" - both coercive and harmful. Harm done only to

oneself is not coercive. Phyisical harm done to another with that

other's consent is also not coercive. The only acts designated as

evil by the u.e. are coercive harms. Note again that the evil originates

as a personal evil - the u.e. does not create any values, although it

does transform some personal evils into u.e.-neutrals. The u.e. is

a moral production function that inputs personal values and outputs

u.e. values.


But not ALL coercively harmful acts are designated as u.e.-evil.

The harm can either be direct or indirect. An indirect harm, or

"incidental injury" is a loss suffered by one person as a result

of another person's pursuit of his life, in which there is no

physical invasion by the actor. For example, suppose you have a

bakery, and someone opens a competing store across the street.

The bakery's profits and the well-being of the owner are reduced -

this is a financial injury. But the baker's competitor did not

directly impose his will on the first baker. Hence, only direct

acts of coercive harm are designated as evil.


A second category consists of actual versus hypothetical acts.

If you carry a knife, you might harm someone, but the act itself

does not harm. Only actual acts are designated as evil by the

u.e., since at the moment, the carrying is not harmful to others.

Note, however, that if you set off a ticking bomb, the act

consists of setting the bomb, not the explosion, so the setting

is an actual harm at the moment of the setting, not the explosion.


The universal ethic has now been derived, and can be expressed as

the following statements:


1. An act is good if and only if it benefits others.

2. An act is evil if and only if it coercively harms others by

initiating a direct, actual invasion.

3. All other acts are neutral.

4. If an act includes good and evil elements, the good does not

cancel out the evil.


A moral right is defined by this formula: R(A) = [u(-A) <- E],

or the right R to do act A is equivalent to the statement that

the negation of A (-A) is asssigned the value evil (<- E) by

the universal ethic (u). Hence, a moral or "natural" or "human"

right is by definition a function of the universal ethic, or

just another way of expressing good and evil values.


Freedom is an absence of restrictions. Liberty or individual
freedom is the prohibition of acts which coercively harm others
and no restrictions on other acts, those which are peaceful and
honest. A society is therefore free if its laws are in accord
with the universal ethic.

For more on the universal ethic, read The Soul of Liberty by Fred Foldvary,available from

or from The Gutenberg Press

To Fred Foldvary's home page