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Building a more moral world

By Peter Bowden - posted Wednesday, 10 April 2019

We have dozens of moral conflicts in the world today – same sex marriage, accepting refugees, gun control, capital punishment and health care in the United States, sexual abuse of children, abortion, euthanasia. We also have dozens of moral theories-well over 20-to decide how we resolve these issues. The reason why we have not resolved these issues is the sheer multitude of theories-all drawn from Western philosophy. The most notorious is Immanuel Kant's categorical imperativeAct only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. This rule enables you to claim that your view on conflicts is correct, and the opposing viewpoint is wrong. Other moral theories will also support whichever side you wish. We see these conflicts in the media every day. It is incredible that after over 2000 years of moral theorising, we are still not able to decide on the difference between right and wrong.

Some philosophers say that we cannot reach a decision on issues of morality. Alain de Botton, in his Religion for Atheists, states that there is no overriding moral rule; we can never decide on what is the right thing to do.

I disagree with Alain de Botton. There is indeed one overriding moral theory, one common to Western and Eastern moral philosophies.


The Eastern belief, based on the eastern religions-Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. -demonstrating the greatest commonality is Ahimsa: refraining from harming others. This moral concept is common to three of the Asian and four of the Western moral philosophies. Combined with the injunction to help others when they need help, it is applicable world-wide. It also answers a near-complete range of current moral questions.

The concept of Ahimsa: "Respect for All Living Things and Avoidance of Violence Towards Others", was quoted by the 14th Dalai Lama when he spoke on the terrorist attack in Nice: "Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you cannot help them, at least don't hurt them". Non-violence is also "at the core of Mahatma Gandhi's political thought".

Debrata Sen Sharma, writing on Hindu ethics, advocates that we should "abstain from violence in any form and refrain from causing injury to any one through deed, word or thought"

The Samyoga Institute tells us: "Although Ahimsa was originally translated as non-killing, it evolved over time to mean non-injurying-physically, mentally and/or verbally." This translation suggests that we not strike anyone, utter unkind words, or even think negative thoughts of anyone.

The concept of Ahimsa overlaps with four of the Western philosophies.

These are Tom Beauchamp's and James Childress', Principles of Biomedical Ethics (2009), William Frankena's Ethics (1973), Bernard Gert's Common Morality (2004), and possibly the most widely endorsed is John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism (1863), which repeatedly condemns harming others. Each of these ethical theories sets out the moral rule that we should not harm others.


Each theory is examined below to determine (i) how well it defines harm; also (ii) if people are suffering from harm or some disability, then then the extent to which we should assist them and (iii) whether it incorporates the relieving of harm already incurred. i.e., a "Do good" as well as a "Do not do harm" injunction, and (iv) the extent to which we weigh one harm against another. e.g. inflict a small harm in order to prevent a larger one.

Beauchamp and Childress: Principles of Biomedical EthicsThis work is a bio-ethics text. It specifies four separate principles that structure this theory: respect for autonomy; non-maleficence; beneficence; and justice. Non-maleficence is the do-no-harm component

William Frankena: Ethics This 1973 book possibly covers much of the universal guideline that we are looking for. It has a four-part set of rules:

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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