Human instinct and human nature is built upon the basic need to survive. How this has applied to human existence has changed dramatically since the dawn of man—upon our genesis, survival was a matter fixated literally on just avoiding death and bodily harm. The rise of the first civilization of Sumer conveyed a shift in how humans prioritized their lives, no longer viewing life as merely avoiding death and instead aspiring to flourish. All societies are built up on a that basic need to survive, though survival as a concept (particularly in wealthier nations) has become more distanced from innate aversion of death.
Survival as a concept, particularly in contemporary American society, is more about being able to stay comfortable within the confines of capitalism, personally flourish, and contribute in some regard to external (local, national, or global) society. Thus, the basis of contemporary moral truths and values are determined by an instinctual value for human life coupled with the effect certain actions have on the survival and flourishing of the acting individual(s), the affected individual(s), and larger society, and the highest moral value is a sense of respect for human life.
Stemming from an instinctual value for human life, virtue and vice should be determined in relation to the way particular actions or attitudes affect individual human beings, local societies, and a global society. Those actions which hinder human development and survival fall under the category of a vice, whereas those that promote growth are virtues. This view is primarily supported by John Stuart Mill’s perspective with regards to Utilitarian moral codes of action.
Utility is defined by Mill as a measurement of usefulness with regards to human happiness and prosperity, thus that which falls within the guidelines of promoting human pleasure is considered a morally correct action. This stems from the Greatest Happiness Principle, which states that the morality of an action is directly proportional to the amount of happiness it creates and inversely proportional to the amount of pain caused. Mill also insists that human beings desire nothing but happiness, a notion somewhat similar to one proposed by Aristotle.
Where the two differ in their perspectives are the degree to which happiness is desired: for Mill, “human nature is so constituted as to [constantly] desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness” (39), while Aristotle views eudaemonia (human flourishing or happiness) as the ultimate desired end as opposed to the only desirable end. There are those who would argue that motive is what truly determines an action’s morality. Kant places a particular emphasis on this notion: because a priori beliefs are derived singularly from innate reason, they are “needed for pure moral dispositions” (Kant, 17).
Since a priori motives (namely the motive of doing something solely for the sake of fulfilling a personal duty) are entirely composed of reason, then the action itself stems from reason, which Kant values above all else. Yet from a practical standpoint, an action’s motive has extremely little if any impact on its outcome. This is because a motive, being an internal form of reasoning, can only have metaphysical internal impacts. Logically speaking, a thought cannot have any impact on a physical, exterior world.
Therefore, an individual’s reasoning behind a certain action has little to no impact on the actual outcome(s) of an action. Take, for example, the effect of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in 1970s aerosol cans and refrigerators on the ozone layer. It most likely was not the intention of aerosol can and refrigerator manufacturers to sell products with chemicals that weaken the atmosphere’s capacity to filter out potentially harmful amounts of ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, but whether or not it these consequences were intended did not stop the consequences from taking place.
Mill makes a similar argument in his statement that “ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so done, if the rule of duty does not condemn them… He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for his trouble; he who betrays the friend that trusts him, is guilty of a crime, even if his object be to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations” (Mill, 20).
Additionally, there is no external way to evaluate the morality of another person’s action if the sole criterion for moral righteousness is having proper motive because no external party can verify the agent’s true motive. Human motive is therefore irrelevant to individual human action, but motive does play a role in forming a standard upon which to act. Kant does mention that the role of duty as a moral criteria has a greater impact on the characters on men “for the purpose of the highest good in the world” (Kant, 17), the role of character in morality is more vigorously emphasized by Aristotle.
In book II of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes virtue as a disposition acquired through consistent habitual choices, stemming from a fixed state of character. Thus, an action cannot be fully virtuous if it is not performed from a virtuous state of character: namely, the action must be voluntarily chosen with full awareness, done for the sake of the noble, and “proceed from a firm and unchangeable character” (Aristotle, 28). The role that motive plays in virtue also relates to the way in which Aristotle analyses moral choices.
Aristotle contends that the highest moral choices stem from a mean (or midway point) between two potentially destructive extremes. Thus, an individual of vicious character whose motivation is solely to look after themselves with little regard to others is significantly less likely to choose the mean option, to the detriment of others or themselves. Kant also suggests that actions done out of personal self-interest cannot be reconciled as truly moral, for only acts with “motives that are… entirely a priori” (Kant, 3), such as duty, are “moral in the proper sense of the word” (Kant, 3).
He also says that an action that is in accord with duty but achieves a higher personal function, such as garnering a good reputation, has no moral worth, again reiterating that only a truly altruistic action is moral. Yet if at the base of all human morality decisions is a need for survival, all human moral actions require at least some kind of self-interest. Even Kant’s claim that action should be done out of a sense of duty in accordance with reason suggests that duty will yield the best results for the acting individual as well as other involved parties.
Self-interest in itself, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, self-interest demonstrates a value and respect for one’s own life, an essential pillar for survival and the starting point from which an individual learns to value the lives of others. The misinterpretation of self-interest as an innately reprehensible quality stems from confusion regarding the difference between self-interest and selfishness: while acting out of self-interest merely refers to acting in accordance with what benefits the individual, acting selfishly is doing so in a way that completely disregards other peoples’ innate human value.
Though motive has little to no concrete impact on external consequences, an understanding of a person’s motive, however, can put an action into a broader perspective and uncover previously unconsidered consequences. Consider the following example: your (theoretical or actual) spouse is dying and needs access to a certain medicine, but you do not have the money for the medicine. To save your spouse, you rob the pharmacy.
Robbing in itself is an immoral act because it hinders the growth of an establishment, therefore hindering the growth of those who work at the site of the robbery in multiple ways (sudden shortage in resources due to robbery, increased sense of alarm, threat to personal security, potential for trauma depending on what happens in the particular robbery, etc. ). However, having an understanding of the motive contextualizes the action, thus giving onlookers a more comprehensive understanding of the full consequences of the action: a pharmacy loses the money it could have made from selling the drug, but in exchange a human life is extended.
The proper philosophical account of human character, as well as actions and choices, is emphasis on the balance of various aspects of human nature as part of reverence for human life. To only value one specific aspect of human mentality—be it reason, capacity for pleasure, or level of care—as the highest tenant of human character is to devalue other valuable aspects of human character, which does not demonstrate a reverence for human life.
Kant’s insistence that humans should act solely through reason with leveled distance from emotionality accounts for good analytical decision-making, but to neglect or reject emotionality is to ignore natural interpersonal relationships as well as moral nuances pertaining to emotionality. Similarly, only valuing care or personal emotion may help in curating personal relationships and achieving various forms of pleasure, but when making complex objective decisions the failure to think rationally can potentially result in disastrous consequences.
As emphasized by Aristotle’s view that virtue lies in the mean between two extremes, good character lies in the balance curation of reason and emotion. The need for balance between emotionality and rationality extends beyond evaluating personal character and into the moral relevance of personal relationships, projects, and commitments. A natural part of human life is the formation of personal relationships, be it business relationships between coworkers, values between friends, the formation of romantic relationships, or strengthening the bond of the family.
In the early stages of human existence, being the close ally of someone who was stronger than you both reduced the possibility that they would pose a threat to you and increased the probability of you having protection against physical threats. Being able to cooperate in parenting secured the safety of whatever offspring you had, therefore ensuring the survival of your lineage. In contemporary society, however, relationships tend to be formed less for the sake of protection and more solely because we have evolved to enjoy some variety of companionship.
Thus, part of thriving as a human person in society comes from having and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Aristotle devotes numerous books in Nicomachean Ethics to discussing the importance of friendship in morality, particularly the importance of prioritizing the true friendship (where both fully-virtuous parties increase the virtue of the other, give and receive equally, delight in each other solely for the sake of each other, etc. ). Mill emphasizes friendship and companionship as higher forms of pleasure that ought to be curated alongside aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and basic pleasures.
The entire focus of care ethics in accordance with Virginia Held is on the role that “caring activities [and relationships] such as [parenting]” (Held, 26) play in perspectives of human morality. Even Kant, while he does not necessarily value human emotionality or relationships of any sort as highly as he does with reason, insists that humans act “on a maxim that involves its own universal validity for every rational being” (Kant, 35), treating people as ends as opposed to means.
Personal projects and commitments also play a role in allowing an individual to fully realize their human potential and contribute to human existence, thus emphasizing respect for human potential. Projects, however, do not take the same moral priority as commitments because commitments have an impact on human relationships in a more direct way than personal projects. For moral dilemmas, one must evaluate the given situation, possible responses, and the consequences of these responses on other people as well as the individual.
Much like with the greatest happiness principle, the action that causes the least detriment to beneficial human growth and development and increases human potential for growth and development by the highest margin is the most morally correct. This can be used to reevaluate social notions that promote the marginalization of individuals. For example, while the American supreme court has made gay marriage legal nationwide, many social groups still stand by the belief that homosexuality is immoral.
An examination of homosexuality with regards to respect of human life will conclude the following: having romantic or sexual relations with someone of the same sex does not carry the potential for procreation (does not further human life from a biological standpoint), but it does foster caring and compassionate relationships between two individuals (furthering human development and happiness) while not overtly threatening the emotional or physical security of other individuals (allowing for the growth and development of others).
Upon this analysis, one can conclude that homosexuality is not morally wrong, but rather morally neutral. It does not yield in biological progression of the human species which has no positive or negative effect on humanity as a whole; the romantic or sexual actions of two individuals do not affect outside parties whatsoever; the two individuals are acting on natural human functions (capacity for love and/or desire for sex) without violating personal autonomy.
If anything, it is practically identical to heterosexual romantic or sexual relationships, aside from the fact that unprotected heterosexual sex is significantly more likely to carry potential for procreation (the consequences of which vary heavily depending on the involved individuals). Thus, in observing social moral trends with respect to the innate value of human life combined with the greatest happiness principle, one can identify and reassess value systems that work towards the unwarranted marginalization of individuals.
Granted, not every situation will have an analysis that is as clear-cut as this one. When analyzing cases of abortion, one must look at the broader context of the individual cases, considering the consequences that possible approaches may have on the lives of the mother, the child, the father, and even family. In analyzing cases where one person has to either kill one other person or let many more people die/suffer, one also has to analyze the context and consider all possible consequences on all affected parties.