Morality of Human Action – Essence, Determinants And Consequences

In order to decide the morality of human actions, ethics must first determine the end or purpose of human actions – reason for which a person performs an action. Some human actions can have many and different purposes including immediate and ultimate ones. Here are some of the diverging opinion of scholars on what constitutes ultimate purpose;

  • Epicureans – They held that humankind’s happiness consists in obtaining pleasure that life can offer, thereby ultimate purpose of human action is pleasure.
  • Stoics – They claimed that the ultimate purpose of human action is to cultivate the human mind or acquire knowledge.
  • Materialism – They maintain that people’s happiness consists in acquiring material goods, thus the acquisition of wealth is or should be the ultimate purpose of human action.
  • Humanism – They hold that the ultimate end of human action is in achieving prosperity and progress for the human race.
  • Humanitarianism – They held that the ultimate end of human action is service – Be it service to humankind in general or to a nation, an organization or a group in particular.

The same physical action may at different times be morally good or morally evil. For example, driving through a red light may be morally evil but in absence of red light, the same physical act of driving through the intersection may be morally good. Let’s look at some of the philosophical thoughts that distinguish between these two;

  • Divine positivists – They claim that actions are good or evil only because God has freely commanded them to be so. Positive laws of God determine the morality of human actions.

The problem with this theory is that it is difficult to comprehend how God could command murder to be right and moral at one time and at another time to be immoral or evil. This is contrary to the common experience of people who have determined that murder is evil.

If the divine positivist position is correct then ethics serves no useful purpose because human reason is incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong—only God can do that.

  • Human positivistsDifference between right and wrong arose from tribal custom or because of education or social influences. Jean-Jacques Rousseau held that actions are good when the state commands them and evil when the state forbids them. Thomas Huxley taught that the notions of moral good and moral evil have changed. For example, Polygamy among the Jewish people was once lawful and moral but today it is immoral.

It is true that education and cultural development help clarify our perception of what is right and wrong. But education and cultural development alone cannot explain the universal agreement that certain actions, such as murder is morally evil.

  • Scholastic – There is an intrinsic difference between good and evil. According to them, at least some human actions are either intrinsically evil or intrinsically good. Actions that lead a man toward his ends are good and actions that lead a man away from his ends are evil.