When you are deciding what is right and what is wrong, here are a few things to consider:
If something will have bad consequences, we probably ought not to do it. If something will have good consequences, we probably ought to do it. This seems obvious. If hitting yourself on the head with a hammer gives you headaches, I recommend that you stop hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. Ask yourself this: What are the consequences of what you are thinking about doing?
The Golden Rule
Here are two formulations of the Golden Rule, one stated positively, and the other stated negatively:
• Treat other people the way you want to be treated.
• Do not treat other people the way that you do not want to be treated.
Ask yourself this: Is what you are thinking about doing consistent with the Golden Rule?
One way to find out if something is morally right is to ask if you want something done to you. You may be thinking that you would like other people to be forced to do something, but would you want to be forced to do that thing?
Let’s suppose that you need money desperately and that the only way you can acquire that money is to borrow it and make a lying promise that you will pay the money back although you know that you will never be able to do so. The principle would be this: “When you need money, it’s ok to make a lying promise that you will pay the money back although you know that you will never be able to do so.” Is this principle moral?
“Reversibility” means that what you want to do to another person, that person can also do to you. (In other words, you “reverse” the situation.) You may be willing to make a lying promise to obtain other people’s money, but are you willing to allow other people to make lying promises to you in order to obtain your money? Of course not.
Here’s another example of reversibility from The Dick Van Dyke Show. In the episode “Punch Thy Neighbor,” Rob Petrie’s neighbor Jerry Helper teases Rob mercilessly about a “bad” show that Rob wrote for The Alan Brady Show. Rob tells Jerry that the teasing isn’t funny, but Jerry keeps on teasing. Finally, Rob opens his door and yells outside, “Jerry Helper is a rotten dentist.” Then Jerry realizes that the teasing isn’t funny. Jerry is willing to tease other people, but he doesn’t want to be teased himself.
Human Beings are Valuable
To be moral, we ought to treat human beings as valuable, and we ought not to treat other human beings badly. In fancy language, we ought to treat other human beings and ourselves as ends (valuable in themselves) rather than as means (things to be used, then tossed aside). Make sure that what you are thinking about doing treats other people with respect.
The moral philosopher Immanuel Kant formulated a moral rule that he called the categorical imperative. This is one of the ways that he expressed it: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”
If you treat another person as a means, then you are using that person. For example, a guy unfortunately might be very nice to a woman, sleep with her, then never call her. In this example, the guy is treating the woman as a means to an orgasm, not as someone valuable in herself.
If you treat other people as ends, then you are treating them as valuable in themselves. For example, you can treat everybody you meet with common courtesy (which, as you probably know, is no longer common). If you see a parent teaching her young child how to cross the street, you can decide to refrain from jaywalking this one time and thus be a role model for the child. You can also refrain from demonstrating power by ordering around waitresses in a restaurant.
As I hope that you can see, our example of making a lying promise to borrow money fails this formulation of the categorical imperative. If you make a lying promise to borrow money, you are using the person you are borrowing from. You are not treating the person as an end; you are treating the person as a means.
Happiness is good. We have to do some things, such as make a living and pay our bills. We ought to do some things, such as exercise and eat healthily. We want to do some things, maybe even things that other people find silly. As long as the things we want to do don’t conflict with the things we have to do and the things we ought to do, go ahead and do them. Ask yourself this: Will what you are thinking about doing bring happiness to people, including yourself?
What Would Happen if Everybody Did It?
If everybody pirates music, what would happen? Chances are, less new music will be written. If musicians can’t make a living from their music, they will have to get money from other sources, including jobs that may not allow them enough time to write and perform good music.
Do You Want You Do to Be Made Public?
If you do something you are proud of, such as win a scholarship or win an athletic event, you probably want people to read about it in the newspaper. If you are caught shoplifting, you probably do not want people to read about it in the newspaper.
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