[This is an essay I wrote a while ago which elucidates well my current thoughts on morality and ethics. I have the feeling that some parts are probably complete nonsense; the entire essay would benefit from commentary on Kant and other philosophers. In the future I plan to do a more complete survey of ethical thought, but until then this should suffice.]
Universally Necessary Ends
Statements of the rightness or wrongness of human actions can only be true or false relative to some end. The statement "to unfasten a screw, one must pound the screw's head with a hammer" is false. The end is elucidated at the beginning of the statement: to unfasten a screw. The means given to that end are insufficient and furthermore contrary to the end. If there is no end given, such as in the statement "murder is wrong", then it is impossible for me to assess the truth value of the proposition. One may easily supply a common end, namely, "a peaceful society", such that the proposition becomes: "murder is wrong if one wants to live in a peaceful society". I would say then that the statement becomes true by definition. A society which advocates murder is by definition not peaceful, and thus the advocacy of murder is contrary to the end of "a peaceful society".
But obviously there are people who do not share the end of a peaceful society. My primary concern with regard to morality, then, is this: what ends, if any, are necessarily held by humans as humans? The existence of frankly and purposefully destructive murderers excludes "a peaceful society" as a universally held end. The end of this concern is ultimately to determine whether or not there are actions which are universally right or universally wrong. Let me name a few primary candidates:
1. Bodily functions — to eat, for example. The desire to eat is at least plausibly universal among humans. Those who do not eat will inevitably feel within them the desire to eat; the end of eating will be involuntarily placed within them by their own bodily/biological processes. Thus, it is at least plausible that the statement "for a human to fast is wrong" is true, because humans as humans have the innate end of satisfying hunger. Thus, as a human, it is wrong to fast. But consider this fact: just as there are murderers who act against the end of "a peaceful society", there are also those who act against the end of satisfying hunger. No matter how hungry they feel, they still refuse to eat, for whatever reason, or for the sake of whatever alternative end they may have in sight. Hunger strikers, for example, have two characteristics that I am concerned with: (1) as a human, a hunger striker of course has the innate desire to eat; and (2) as a hunger striker, one must have a desire for some other (usually more abstract, political or social) end. A hunger striker, it might be said, forgoes the innate ends of human nature in order to obtain a more desired end. The only meter which we currently have to measure desires is human action; it is of course a fundamental principle of economics that if person A trades item C to person B for item D, then it can be said that person A values item D more than he values item C, otherwise he would not have made the trade.
Thus, the hunger striker values end P (political) more than end B (bodily), otherwise we can assume that he would not have made the choice to fast. Thus, to take up Aristotelian terminology for a moment, we could say that the hunger striker is not a virtuous human, but is indeed a virtuous hunger striker. As a human, the hunger striker does not perform his function well (to eat, and to otherwise satisfy bodily desires to the greatest possible extent in order to preserve his own existence). As a hunger striker, however, the hunger striker performs his function well (to abstain from satisfying bodily processes in order to obtain an allegedly higher political or social goal). To be a good hunger striker is to be a bad human.
Thus, having established that a person can indeed simultaneously hold contrary ends, the task for us is to determine a person's primary end. If we have in our custody a murderer, the task for us is to ask him why he killed, and only then can we move on to proclaiming his "rightness" or "wrongness". If the murderer should respond to our inquiry with such a statement: "I killed in order to produce fear among the greater society", then we can say that he was probably successful, and that his action was right. If the murderer should respond: "I killed in order to satisfy my neighbour's dog's request", I can only assume that the murderer's action was wrong, as such a dog likely had no such request to be satisfied, and thus the murderer's end remains unfulfilled.
One may object that "right" and "wrong", commonly understood, are not meant to be synonyms for "successful" and "unsuccessful"; but rather to be synonyms for "moral" and "immoral". To exclaim that a murderer's actions were "wrong", for the common man, is to say that his actions were "evil". A man who proposes the "evilness" of a particular action may be understood to mean one of two things: (a) that said action is not a sufficient or compatible means to any of his ends; or (b) that said action is contrary to some universal set of ends by which all people's actions are judged. Interpretation (a) may be understood to be the midpoint between what I argue for and interpretation (b), which is commonly called "moral absolutism". Interpretation (a) can be understood as the act of asserting one's set of ends to be greater or of more value than another's set of ends. The murderer's set of ends, according to the man who argues (a), is inferior to my set of ends. This, in my view, is probably very close to the moral attitude of most people today.
But I wonder if either proposition (a) or (b) can ever be true or false. For example, consider the proposition that "murder is evil". This is interpreted by me as asserting: "murder is the wrong means to a universal set of ends". How can this statement be true or false? One would be challenged with identifying a universal set of ends by which all people's actions are judged, which is not arbitrary. The problem with interpretation (a) is that it is arbitrary; there is no reason for me to believe that A's set of ends is of more value than B's set of ends. You may object: "I feel that a murderer's set of ends are less preferable than a non-murderer's". But this only moves the problem back, as you must then prove that your feeling is greater than someone else's feeling. The murderer obviously does not feel the same way.
Thus you can probably see the general outline of the problem: one must find a way to judge ends. The murderer who wants to "produce fear in the greater society" must be condemned, according to the common man, regardless of whether or not he was successful. The only way to condemn him, in my opinion, is to appeal to ones own feelings about the case. But it is by no means true, nor false, that the murderer was wrong, unless he was wrong relative to some end. To clarify: imagine an emotionless observer of the case; how would you convince that observer that the murderer was indeed wrong? How could the murderer convince said observer of the rightness of his action?
We may imagine a situation wherein a person holds unattainable ends. There is no way that the second murderer could obtain the end of "satisfy(ing) my neighbour's dog's request", as his neighbour's dog did not have, and anyway could not elucidate or verify such a request. And thus, we have found ourselves an end which is universally wrong: those which are unattainable. To say that I have an end, seriously held, is to assume that there is some action which will bring about that end. To say that I seriously desire to unfasten a screw, for example, is to assume that there is some means to that end, whether or not there really are. An irrational end is an objective, seriously held, for which there are no possible and practical means. If I said that my seriously held objective was to become an alligator, such an end would, at least at the present time, be irrational, as there exist no practical means to such an end. I am unalterably human; or at least I cannot, at the present time, change my species at will. Likewise, I would be irrational to seriously endeavor to satisfy my desire to be a child again, as there is no means of actually doing so literally. Thus, it is universally wrong to set about attaining unattainable ends. When one begins an action towards an end, we can only assume that one desires that end; it is his end to accomplish that end. He will not accomplish that end if it is unattainable. Thus, action, any action at all allegedly in the service of that end, is wrong. To act towards literally becoming a child is wrong if literally becoming a child is impossible. To attempt fitting a square peg through a round hole is wrong, as a square peg, so long as it stays a square peg, is impossible to fit through a round hole, so long as it stays a round hole.
The trouble with this conclusion, though, is that it has little if any relevance to common morality. There is nothing wrong with obtaining the end of "producing fear in the greater society" by means of murder, as it is not an irrational end. No one today would seriously consider punishing people who attempt reliving their childhood; or people who foolishly try to fit square pegs through round holes.