The Limited Usefulness of Moral Codes for Ethical Behavior (Part I)
By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
Note: This article is the first article in a two-part series about moral codes and ethical behavior.
Ethical choices often appear intuitive and obvious. In reality, however, determining right from wrong, and identifying a course of action that maximizes well-being, is rarely simple or easy.
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Over the centuries, philosophers have tried to codify certain moral rules of thumb, guidelines for moral conduct that can be applied universally and always yield the best results. But the long and short of this centuries-old work is that there really aren’t any rules that always render the best results. Or if there are, we haven’t found them yet.
Studying Moral Codes Is Helpful for Determining Ethical Behavior
Studying the different moral codes that have been posited over the years will help anyone pondering their own ethical behavior — or the behavior of others — to think about ethics in a more informed way. With that said, herein I’ve outlined a brief summary of these different “rules” — the iron rule and the brass rule.
The iron rule is perhaps the crudest of all rules. It rests on a premise of blind self-interest. The iron rule is generally written as “do unto others before they do unto you.” In this sense, the iron rule embraces an assumption that others cannot be trusted, and that their inevitable betrayal should be thwarted by a pre-emptive strike.
Looking at World War II through an iron rule lens, we could actually justify the actions of both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Assuming that competitors cannot be trusted to respect the sovereignty of others, the iron rule would clearly suggest that Germany and Japan were justified in attacking first, lest they become the victims of their own procrastination.
The Iron Rule Is Neither Mutually Compatible nor Sustainable as a Moral Prescription
However, while the iron rule might appease selfish motives, it is neither mutually compatible nor sustainable as a moral prescription. Any two or more individuals who adopt an iron rule philosophy will inevitably find themselves in conflict with each other, until one or the other is destroyed.
The end game of the iron rule would be one human being left standing. After slaying all others, he has no one left to pre-emptively conquer. For these reasons, the iron rule is rarely regarded as a moral precept with any real value in 21st-century human affairs.
The Brass Rule Sounds Fair, But Has Flaws
The brass rule is next on the list of precepts. The brass rule is usually stated as “do unto others as they do unto you.” The main premise of the brass rule was famously enshrined in The Hammurabi Code, the legal philosophy of the ancient Babylonian king of Mesopotamia.
The Hammurabi Code, consisting of hundreds of tenets, was one of the first legal doctrines in recorded history. One of its most essential tenets was the principle that people should be made to pay for their debts and misdeeds in kind and with equal value. The Hammurabi Code is in fact the source from which the Christian Bible derives the notion of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” King Hammurabi predates the story of Jesus Christ by almost 1,800 years.
On its face, the brass rule sounds fair and equitable, but when carried to its logical conclusion, serious flaws arise. Consider the example of World War II again. If we can agree that Germany and Japan executed unprovoked attacks, then the brass rule would support the right of the Allies to respond in-kind. That should theoretically rebalance the scales and conclude the execution of justice.
However, to assume all parties would agree that these attacks were truly unprovoked is to reject our understanding of both human psychology and world history. Neither Adolf Hitler nor Emperor Hirohito truly believed that their military attacks were unprovoked. There were long strings of historical events that, in their respective views, compelled these two men to take the military actions that they did: For Hitler, it was Germany’s defeat and humiliation in the First World War, and for Hirohito it was the fallout of western imperialism.
This reveals a problem with the brass rule. If the attacks by Germany and Japan were in fact retaliatory and justifiable as a means of rectifying past indiscretions, then the Allied responses to those attacks were separate offensive attacks against which Germany and Japan should have – under the brass rule – responded again.
By responding to some prior act, each side sees its own actions as the administration of justice against the other side. The problem with the brass rule is that this exchange of “justice” would never end, at least not until there is nothing and no one left to suffer retribution. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
Most philosophers agree that the iron and brass rules are not particularly helpful in informing the peaceful diplomacy that is needed in the world today if we are to avoid nuclear conflicts that could wipe out humanity.
So where else might we look for guidance? In the second part of this article about moral codes and ethical behavior, I will outline a few other rules that have been put forth, and why each of these rules ultimately break down in the context of the World War II example. I will also offer my best advice for making productive use of these rules in our lives today.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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