Morality concerns the fundamental reason why some actions are good and others are evils. It is a search for criteria to assess the goodness or badness of human action. Some of the schools of thought on this issue are as follows;
Utilitarianism – Utilitarians claim that the test of goodness or badness of a human action is the usefulness of the action. An action is morally good if it is useful and morally evil if it is not. There are two kinds of Utilitarians, who differ only on the notion of usefulness.
- Individual utilitarianism (Hedonism) – Epicurus is generally credited with development of this school. It holds that an action is intrinsically good if it is useful for or brings pleasure to the individual. An action is morally evil if it destroys or diminishes a person’s pleasure. Actions that initially bring pleasure but subsequently bring pain are good or evil according to their most pronounced effect. For example, a person drinking alcohol may derive certain pleasure but a subsequent hangover may bring pain. Herein, most pronounced effect determines the morality of the action of drinking alcohol.
- Social utilitarianism (Altruism) – It holds that an action is morally good if it is useful for the community – the greatest good for the greatest number. Actions are good or evil in as far as they advance or hinder the happiness or good of the community. Advocates of this theory include John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham.
Herbert Spencer combined these two theories and stated that an action is good if it brings pleasure to the individual and simultaneously promotes the good of the community. He admitted there may be conflicts between what is good for the individual and what is good for the community because we have not yet evolved sufficiently to achieve perfect harmony between the individual and the community.
- Criticism – Primary criticism, in general, is that it often promotes selfishness. It also assumes without proof that people can satisfy their needs for the perpetual good in their lives. Individual utilitarianism provides no advance guarantee that an action will bring pleasure or pain, often a person must act before experiencing pleasure or pain. If pleasure is the sole criterion of moral goodness, every act, including stealing, murder, and so on, can be moral. The same argument applies to social utilitarianism— that is, every act done for the good of the community is moral but it destroys the dignity of the individual and makes people cogs in the wheel of human progress.
Intuitionism – Intuitionism claims, we know that ethical principles are valid and universal by intuition. Human beings have a special sense that enables them to perceive directly what is right and what is wrong. What brings pleasure to this moral faculty is good and what brings displeasure is evil. Another version of intuitionism claims that the ultimate criterion of morality is common sense. People have principles that they form instinctively but cannot explain.
- Criticism – It attempts only to tell us how we know what is good and not what is good. It offers no proof that we have a moral faculty or instinct that tells us what is right and what is wrong. It is true that human beings have consciences, but consciences do not work automatically and are not instincts.
Rationalism – Immanuel Kant is considered as the father of this school who claimed that no action is moral if it is done for pleasure or any other motive than duty or respect for the law. His conception of Categorical Imperative is quite significant in order to determine morality of an action – Acts are good if done out of respect for the Categorical Imperative else it is bad one. Acts are good, if they can be universalized—that is, we should act in the way everybody else in the same circumstances would act. The essential element in determining morality is human reason. Thus, the ultimate test of goodness or badness of human actions is the Categorical Imperative of practical reason.
- Criticism – There is no evidence that the Categorical Imperative exists. If it does exist, it would not explain the morality of actions taken when no law exists to command such actions. Kant’s canonization of human reason as the sole and infallible interpreter of morality is flawed.
Scholasticism – Scholastic philosophers maintain that the essence of morality lies in human nature considered in its totality—that is, in all its parts and all its relationships, including those with other human beings, the universe and the supreme-being. Once we know the nature of something, we can come to know its purpose and what will help it to attain it. For humans, it is his rational nature that determines what is good and what is bad.
The criteria for assessing the morality of human action are a fundamental issue that has intrigued philosophers. Scholastic theory is more comprehensive compared to others mentioned, since it considers several criteria, including the body and soul, the intellect and senses, human relationships with various entities and the circumstances in which humans find themselves.