Is “Good” Just a Feeling?

Our whole lives, we are told to be good and do good. But what is good? Is it a thing that can be measured or is it something I become? Americans have had a hard time agreeing on the answer to such questions. We are however, in general agreement that American morality has dropped significantly in the last 10-20 years. Could there be a moral shift in America that is causing the perceived, if not actual, decline of moral values? Could it be our youngest generation who are doing the shifting?

Noted sociologist from Notre Dame, Christian Smith, conducted a survey of young people in 2008 asking questions to determine the state of their moral lives. When asked how they deal with matters of right and wrong they made statements like “It’s personal, its up to the individual. Who am I to say?” or “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.” This sort of thinking may sound like more Gen Y self interest but there is philosophical grounding for such thinking and it is even found in our own governmental structure.

Utilitarian Ethics

The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham believed that a moral action is one that maximizes the pleasure or “the good” of those parties affected by that action.[1] This ethical view promotes doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people in a given situation. Bentham’s belief is grounded in what he calls the “principal of utility”, that is founded upon the production of happiness or pleasure, which he deems to be good or doing good. The utilitarian is chiefly concerned with the prospect of making happiness in others to the greatest extent possible. An act that brings happiness to ten of twenty people in a given situation would be considered by the utilitarian inferior to an act that could supply happiness to twenty of twenty people in the same situation.

Bentham has argued that the utility principle is a basic and fundamental reality. He reasoned that it was the “ultimate ethical standard” by which other ethical principles may be deduced from, but “it is not deducible from any other ethical principle.”[2] Bentham described this basic principle as something one realizes or accepts, as most irreducibly basic principles are. In this way it is irreducible and the precept of all other value judgments. The utility principle is derived from observing the way in which good is produced and deeming such acts moral. In other words, Bentham suggests that we observe what is (bringing pleasure or happiness) and we deem that moral or good.

Hume is Not Impressed

Philosopher David Hume has raised serious questions about the credibility of declaring what “ought to be” simply be observing what “is”. Hume claimed that no ought–statement, only containing an ought-claim and not a factual claim, is logically deducible from a factual is-statement.[3] To put it another way, a factual claim that describes the way a thing is (such as, the ground is wet) cannot produce a deducible ought-claim such as “the ground should be wet.” The factual claim (the ground is wet) stated nothing about the way a thing ought to be and therefore, does not offer information of any objective moral value. Apply this to something a little more emotionally charged (men marry women) and Hume’s thesis still stands. Simply because men do in fact marry women does not mean that men should marry women. Moral reasoning beyond this observation must take place in order to make a case for or against that assertion.

Hume’s critique does not necessarily exclude utilitarianism from justifying objective moral values; other variables are present to support that conclusion. But Hume does raise concerns about the validity of a standard of ethics grounded within the utility principle. Utilitarianism shares the same subjectivity dilemma that is inherent in moral relativism. Whenever an ethical standard finds its basic principle in the happiness of moral agents or an affected party, that standard becomes subject to the circumstances and persons involved in a given situation. Utilitarianism appeals to an objective virtue in that it seeks to accomplish happiness on behalf of others, but the standard for determining what the greatest good or happiness is remains a subjectively orientated decision. Therefore, a utilitarian system of ethics is not compatible with the existence of objective moral values. Moral judgment must be predicated on more than what makes the most people happy.