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
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
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.
or from The Gutenberg Press
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