September 20, 2010
Attempts to produce universal ethical principles from outside of religious traditions are equally flawed – the obvious candidate method is science, and as we have already seen, science cannot bear directly on questions of values. Reason and logic alone are insufficient to the task as they must first be given some raw material on which to work and there are many possible foundations on which to build. This does not mean that one cannot reason to a system of ethics, only that such a system cannot have any absolute claim to universality. The applicability of the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights ends at the nations who have agreed to this statute; to force these rules unwillingly on other cultures risks great evil, even if the rights themselves embody a great good.
In Kant's ethical thinking, from which modern ideas of Human Rights are descended, a basic tenet is that of the ethical as the universal, which is to say, that to think ethically is to think in terms of expecting everyone to be bound by the same rules. But this universality is only part of the picture. Kant also insists on mutual respect (never treating others as purely means, but also as ends in themselves) and communal autonomy (the "Realm of Ends", where all people's objectives are to be balanced against one another). This is by no means as simple as is sometimes taken; the pursuit of the third principle may have to change the meaning of the first. The quest for universal good may have to settle for common good.
Part 15 of 23 in the Pentenary series.
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