Suppose a consortium of powerful interests wanted to r eplace a president with someone whose policies they preferred–and blame it on a patsy. What’s wrong with that? Or suppose the leaders of foreign nation orchestrated a terrorist act as a rationale for US forces to take out their enemies—at the expense of 3,000 Americans. What’s wrong with that? Or suppose a US administration decided to fake a mass elementary school shooting to promote its agenda to undermine the 2nd Amendment. What’s wrong with that?
While there’s obviously room for debate about the facts–where I personally have invested decades of collaborative research with the best experts to get them right–assuming we do have them right, these are egregious examples of the raw exercise of power exemplifying the (corrupt) principle, “Might makes right!” In other words, if you are powerful enough to impose your will upon others–no matter what the cost in liberty, property, or lives might be–you are entitled–morally entitled–to conduct those acts. Which raises the question, “If acts like these are (morally) wrong, what makes them (morally) wrong?”
We tend to take for granted the difference between right and wrong, where some acts–such as murder, robbery, kidnapping, and rape–are clearly wrong, while others–such as truthfulness, honesty, kindness, and candor–are right. But we seldom stop to ask ourselves what it is about actions of the one kind that make them wrong or about actions of the second kind that make them right. Having offered courses in ethics and society, I have considered whether or not there is an objective foundation for drawing these distinctions.
There turn out to be at least eight different theories of the difference between right and wrong. Four of them are relatively familiar and (even) traditional, to wit: subjectivism; family values; religious-based ethics; and cultural relativism. The other four are less family to the public but, more importantly tend to be the focus of philosophical discussion: ethical egoism; limited utilitarianism; classic utilitarianism; and deontological moral theory. The question thus becomes, How can we arbitrate between them in an objective (even scientific) manner?
Those familiar with this publication may be aware of my previous investigation of (what are widely known as) “conspiracy theories”, where the CIA invented the term “conspiracy theorist” as a form of denigration. The agency does not like it when (let us call them) citizen-scholars conduct their own research inquiries into politically significant crimes because–more often than not–they lead back to the government itself. The same standards applied to scientific theories can be applied to conspiracy theories–often with devastating results.
Criteria of Evaluation
My thoughts thus extended to the prospect that theories about morality–which are, after all, theories–might be evaluated by criteria that parallel those used to evaluate scientific theories, including even theories about conspiracies. And, indeed, the classic criteria of adequacy (CA) initially advanced by the American philosopher of science, Carl G. Hempel, for whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis at Princeton in 1962, turn out to be as applicable to conspiracy theories as much as they are to standard scientific:
- (CA-1) the clarity and precision of the language in which alternative theories are expressed;
- (CA-2) their scope of application for the purpose of explanation and prediction;
- (CA-3) their respective degrees of empirical support on the available evidence; or,
- (CA-4) the economy, elegance or simplicity with which they satisfy (CA-1) – (CA-3)?
Their applicability to theories of morality, however, is not as straightforward as their applicability to conspiracy theories, especially because of what ought to qualify as “empirical support” in the case of theories of morality. My solution is to adopt traditional cultural practices as appropriate for cases that historically have been regarded as morally wrong, such as murder, robbery, kidnapping, and rape, on the one hand, and alternatively as morally right, such as truthfulness, honesty, kindness, and candor, on the other, which provide “empirical data”.
Since they constituted (what we might call) clear cases of moral behavior in contrast to immoral, a defensible theory of morality ought to produce outcomes in their determinations of which acts are right and which are wrong consistent with past human practices and are otherwise unacceptable. Similarly, insofar as considerations of economy, elegance or simplicity do not appear to apply, they can be further evaluated by the extent to which they clarify and illuminate other acts that are more controversial and complex, an issue to which I shall return.
Given these preliminary considerations, It appears to be appropriate (for the comparison of theories of morality) to adopt the following as counterparts to (CA-1) through (CA-4). Since the clarity and precision of language does not arise in this context. I have replaced it with the desideratum that a defensible moral theory must not reduce to the principle that “Might makes right!”, where those who are able to impose their will upon others are right for doing so. The revised version of these conditions of adequacy thus become:
- (CA-1*) they must not reduce to the principle, “Might makes right”!, which is the source of the problem;
- (CA-2*} their scope of application for the purpose of explaining and predicting the moral character of acts;
- (CA-3*) their proper classification of acts generally acknowledged as right and wrong; and, additionally,
- (CA-4*) the extent to which they shed light upon and clarify more complex and controversial cases.
Examples of those “more complex and controversial cases” might include that of legalizing marijuana, the restriction of abortion, and changing a child’s sex by means of chemical or surgical procedures, which has become a highly popular practice among one political party in power in the United States today (but less so with the party out of power). Other cases, of course, could likewise be used as an additional basis for arbitrating between them.
There are lots of books on morality that philosophers have published over the years, where I make no pretense of being familiar with most or even many. At the time I offered courses in ethics and society, I used a book authored by one James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (4th ed., 2002). There are other editions, of course, and many other books. I just happened to have used this one. And any of those other books could be used as resources to test and compare my definitions of these alternative theories and how I evaluate them.
Right off the bat, however, before we plunge into the evaluation of alternative theories, we need to distinguish between the concepts of legality, of morality, and of propriety. Actions are legal when they conform to the law, which tends to be specified by published statutes distinctive of various jurisdictions. What is legal vs. what is not does not require conceptualization but the ability to look up statutes where they are to be found. These statues are generally public, since it would be counterproductive to use the power of the state to punish those who violate them if the public is not made aware of the state’s expectations.
The question of morality, which we are addressing here, is not something that you can simply “look up” in published documents and ascertain as matters of fact for different jurisdictions at various times. Laws of society, unlike laws of nature, can be violated and can be changed, which under the US Constitution, is a responsibility delegated to the legislative branch (which passes the laws) to be enforced by the executive branch (through the Department of Justice and its agencies, such as the FBI), and interpreted by the judicial branch (the highest authority of which is the United States Supreme Court). That used to be taught in high school civics classes, which have all but become remnants of the past.
The principles of morality are supposed to be universal and unchanging, which apply to all persons at all times and places. Questions of propriety are not the same, since they, too, like fads and fashions, can come and go. They include such niceties as a man walking on the side of the sidewalk closest to the street when accompanying a woman (which derived from the horse-and-buggy days to protect the woman from water should the buggy splash it her way); or using the right fork to eat your salad (especially outmoded when most food today is meant to be eaten by holding it in hour hand). And today it appears to have become a question, “What is a woman?”, given the nature of contemporary politics and discourse, even regarding the most basic biological facts.
Among the most basic methods of philosophy for evaluating position is known as the method of counterexample. Say, if someone claimed, “All pennies are made out of copper”, adducing a penny from 1943 would suffice as a basis of refutation since, because of the shortage of copper needed to fight World War II, they were made of steel instead. Similarly, theories of morality that classify clear acts of right and wrong improperly–or that fail to elucidate and clarify more complex and controversial cases–will therefore be excluded from consideration as the most defensible theory of morality of those under consideration here.
Popular Theories of Morality
From this point of view–and applying criteria of evaluation (CA-1*) to (CA-4*), let’s consider the four popular theories of morality identified above. First off, using the symbol “=df” to mean equals by definition or as the definition sign,
(T1) Subjectivism =df an action A is right (for person P) if P approves of A.
Clearly, under this standard, what might be right for one person might be wrong for another or even for the same person at different times, which (of course) is why it qualifies as “subjectivism”. Consider your own personal murder, robbery, kidnapping or or rape as action A. If someone P approves of murdering (or of kidnapping, robbing, or raping you), then if theory (T1), Subjectivism, were true, you would have no recourse to complain that what they did was wrong. Indeed, by (T1), as long as they approved of A, that action would be (morally) right.
Obviously, (T1) Subjectivism violates the conditions of evaluation (CA-1*) and (CA-3*), since it reduces to the corrupt principle that might makes right and, in addition, classifies traditionally accepted examples of morally wrong behavior (all of the above) as though they were morally right. And while it applies to us equally as individuals, it does not classify the same behavior as moral and immoral, even under otherwise identical circumstances .Since (T1) Subjectivism cannot satisfy those conditions of evaluation, it must be set aside an no longer a candidate for an acceptable theory of morality.
(T2) Family Values =df an action A is right for a family F, if F approves of A.
Consider the bigotry of the Archie Bunker family (“All in the Family”), the cultish conduct of the Charles Manson family (addressed in Vincent Bugliosi’s book, Helter Skelter), or the Slaughter family portrayed in the film, “The Texas Chair Saw Massacre“, Since (T2) Family Values represents an expansion of theory (T1) to a family, it would be expected to fail on the same (or similar) grounds. The Slaughter family, of course, represents an especially gruesome illustration, where they kill, butcher, and barbecue unsuspecting visitors to their filling station and store. No surprise, therefore, that (T2) Family Values thus falls short.
(T3) Religious-Based Values. =df. an action A is right for members of religion R if religion R approves of actions of kind A
And obvious problem arises: which religion? But that’s also the point. There is no requirement that different religions be approving or disapproving of all and only the same kinds of actions. Consider: pantheism, polytheism, monotheism, deism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Brahmanism, Zoroastrianism, Mohammedanism (Islam), Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, fundamentalism, Assembly of God, . . . ). Indeed, the inquisition and Crusades suggest that (as Bertrand Russel observed) more have died in the name of religion than from any other cause. Clearly violating (CA-1*) and (CA-3*)
(T4) Cultural Relativism. =df. an action A is right for members of Culture C if Culture C approves of actions of kind A.
Once we grasp that (T2) Family Values, (T3) Religious-Based Values, and (now) (T4) Cultural Relativism are simply matters of attitude (exhibit by one person, a family, a religion, or a culture, it should be easy to generate counter-examples of each relatively obvious. A warlike culture (on the level of a tribe, a community, or a state) that approves of imposing its will on other tribes, communities, or states violates (CA-1*) as well as (CA-3*), once again. Moreover, each of these theories make morality simply a question of fact about attitudes and values, where there is no role for moral criticism, moral progress, or moral reform, which are without meaning.. As long as those attitudes and values prevail, actions in accord with them are right. Period!
Philosophical Theories of Morality
There’s not a lot of room for debate about the intellectual merits of theories (T1) through (T4), therefore, which philosophers tend to give scant attention. More serious are more intellectually defensive alternatives, most of which also fail to satisfy the key conditions of (CA-1*) and (CA-3*). Three of the four are consequentialist conceptions, where an action A is right when it produces at least as much good as any alternative action. The question becomes, “What is the good?” Candidates have included wealth, power, happiness, and more. Here we shall consider happiness as the measure of the good. But for whom?
(T5) Ethical Egoism. =df. an action A is right when it produces at least as much happiness for person P as an available alternative.
But then consider classic examples of murderous narcissists who satisfy the conception of Ethical Egoism to a “t”: Ted Bundy, John Gacy, or Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted was a handome guy who kidnapped, raped, and murdured at least 30 girls and women, where the actual total will never be know. Gacy kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered at least 33 young men and boys. Dahmer murdered and dismembered at least 17 males between 1978 and 1991, where his practices included necrophilia, cannibalism, and the preservation of body parts. Could it possibly be more obvious that (T5) Ethical Egoism does not properly define “morality”?
(T6) Limited Utilitarianism. =df an action A is right when it produces at least as much happiness for the group G as any alternative.
Think of The Third Reich, the Mafia, or (even) General Motors, when its puts its profit line ahead of safety for the American people, its own customers. A nice example is the Corvair, which Ralph Nader publicized in his book, Unsafe at Any Speed. I regard (T6) Limited Utilitarianism as the most pernicious of all moral theories, because it emboldens groups to undertake collective actions in order to enrich themselves or otherwise control the course of events, exemplified by the consortium of powerful interests to take out JFK and replace him with LBJ, Israel and its allies in the CIA and the DOD to attack the United States on 9/11, and the Obama admin to manipulate public opinion by taking the Sandy Hook elementary school shoot, which was a FEMA drill presented as mass murder.
(T7) Classic Utilitarianism =df. an action A is right when it produces at least as much happiness for everyone as any alternative.
Some actions, of course, could produce more happiness for some members of the community than for others, so it becomes a matter of net happiness, which equals gross happiness minus gross unhappiness.The lynch mob, for example, may derive more happiness from lynching their targets than any alternative act, but would obviously not induce happiness for those they are stringing up. The government takes actions that affect (almost) everyone in the United States, for example, some (Social Security, Medicare, Medicate, Unemployment Insurance, and Workmen’s Compensation) seem to serve the public well. Those actions are moral as long as they produce more happiness than any alternative.
The difference between (T2) Limited and (T3) Classic Utilitarianism–where many philosophers defend (T3) Classic Utilitarianism but (to the best of my knowledge) none defend (T2) Limited Utilitarianism–is that the only effects or consequences that count in evaluating the morality of actions are those for the members of the group. As long as they benefit, the consequences for others, no matter how numerous or how severe and damaging–simply don’t count. The crucial defect in (T3) Classic Utilitarianism, as I see it, is that actions that might make the majority happy can be taken at the cost of gross injustice for the few.
Deontological Moral Theory
(T8) Deontological Moral Theory. =df action action A is right when it entails always treating other persons as ends and never merely as means.
Let me explain the concept of “treating other persons as ends”. Aretha got it right: R-E-S-P-E-C-T turns out to be (as I see it) the foundation of morality and therefore of right action What’s wrong with murder, robbery, kidnapping, and rape is that other persons are being used merely as means .to satisfy the aims or objectives of those who are abusing them. When groups abuse other groups, the same phenomenon takes place. Stealing elections (as occurred in 2020 and in 2022 and may again occur in 2024) to preserve political control by one party over the other involves using a large segment (even the majority) the country merely as means and disrespecting their right to contribute to the decision of who should lead the nation in Washington, D.C.
Suppose Democratic hatred for Donald J. Trump is so great that, for him to be denied the outcome of an election that he would have legitimately won–by a margin of roughly 100,000,000 to 37,000,000, by my best estimation–is an apt (even perfect) illustration. If the happiness that was produced by that outcome when the gross unhappiness of Trump supporters is subtracted from the gross happiness of the Democrats and yields the largest happiness outcome for the nation as a whole, then stealing the election was morally right! We thus begin to understand why even (T7) Classic Utilitarianism is not sufficient to define “morality” and establish the difference between right and wrong.
So if stealing the election was not morally right, then (T7) Classic Utilitarianism cannot be an adequate theory of morality. Indeed, it represents (what might be called) the rape of democracy, because those who engineered the theft of the 2020 election were abusing Trump supporters on a national scale just as the rapist abuses his victim. And notice too that gang rapes and mass murders are morally on a par but far more damaging to their victims than are ordinary rapes and murders–a case where there are quantitative differences in crimes that, in effect, offer an easy way to measure the magnitude of the crime.
That’s why (the claim of) killing 20 kids and 6 adults at Sandy Hook carried such emotional impact,. especially with parents. It was an act of (faux) terrorism by the Obama administration that was coldly calculated with advice from social psychologists and psychiatrists. Obama was using the (staged) event to affect the emotions and attitudes of the American people to surrender their rights to keep and bear arms under the 2nd Amendment. That’s what Sandy Hook was all about. (And I have explained it in detail on many occasions, such as here and here and here.)
Among the most important points to grasp with regard to (T8) Deontological Moral Theory is that, as long as parties are treating one another with respect, they may engage in mutually beneficial relationships, such as doctor/patient, employer/employee, teacher/student. Consider employer/employee relations as an illustration. As long as the employer is not subjecting his employees to unsafe working conditions, paying them a fair wage, and not otherwise abusing them (sexually, for example), their relations can be appropriate and moral. In return, as long as employees are performing their work successfully, are not being paid for work they did not perform, and are not stealing from them, they can be mutually beneficial relationships, where employers and using their employees to run a business and make a profit while their employees are using their employers to earn a living and support themselves and their families.
When we apply (T8) Deontological Moral Theory to the United States today, we discover that the rule of law and the most basic principle upon which our nation was founded–“Equal Justice Under Law”–has been massively abrogated by the Democratic Party, which (as I have ascertained by extensive research, which began before the election and continues to this day), WENT ALL OUT TO STEAL THE 2020 ELECTION. There is nothing remotely moral about the Executive Branch today. Selective prosecution and the gross weaponization of the Department of Justice and the FBI are manifested by the selection of targets for prosecution (the DNC’s principal opponent) and those it protects (the President’s son and his allies in corrupt business practices).
And the proliferation of programs like “Defund the Police” and no longer prosecuting crimes like shoplifting, while saddling cities and states with massive numbers of illegal immigrants–not to mention the promotion of gay and lesbian sex and transgenderism in elementary schools defies common sense and traditional moral values. It likewise represents the ultimate insult to young children who are being used merely as means by being encouraged to cut off. their breasts and their penises in a bizarre effort to destroy Christian and traditional values in manners that display gross disrespect for parents and their children alike. This is as disgraceful and disgusting as it gets!
It has saddened me beyond words that the United States of America, which I had the honor of serving, has sunk to the level that special interests (such as the war in Ukraine) are receiving massive funding, while our own border has been turned into a welcome mat for miscreants around the world. Other nations are emptying their prisons and unloading the inmates from their institutions to create the world’s largest banana republic: Laws are not being enforced; criminals are being supported; their victims are being punished. I may not be in the position to do something about it, but I can demonstrate–here and now–that America has become the most immoral and corrupt nation on Planet Earth. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
James H. Fetzer, Ph.D., a former Marine Corps officer and McKnight Professor Emeritus on the Duluth Campus of the University of Minnesota, has published 24+ academic books and 12+ in conspiracy research.
Author: Jim Fetzer