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Negative Preference Morality

The Golden Rule provides a constructive, objective basis for moral behavior.

TAGS: WHERNTO: erudite  righton  operate 

image of Negative Preference Morality

The Golden Rule is the only moral principle that grounds itself in objective observation. The primary three systems of normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics, all share the common failure to conclusively answer the question "Why should I care?" when they make claims of how individuals ought to behave. The Golden Rule, however, does not even ask that we care about the principle at all, it simply explains that when we act in a manner toward others that is inconsistent with how we would like to be treated, then we are being hypocritical and unfair. This replaces opinion with fact, so that the desires of individuals cannot be held above it. However, the Golden Rule does have some loopholes that ought to be addressed in order to form a more solid basis for morality.

One common criticism of the Golden Rule is that it permits those with self- harming preferences, such as masochism and suicide, to commit harm to others. But this is only true if we take the Golden Rule to mean that we should treat others with the same actions that we desire. But to say that individual A deserves action X because individual B desires X is a non sequitur, since if A does not desire X, then B is violating A's preferences, which B would not want for himself. The criticism actually implies its own solution: instead of treating others with the same actions we want to be treated with, we should instead uphold a respect for others' preferences. By the very nature of a preference, everyone wants theirs to be treated well, since you cannot hold a preference that you do not want to be fulfilled.

Another important issue to cover is that of conflicting preferences. Ideally, everyone could satisfy all their preferences without infringing upon those of others, but there are some preferences (i.e. bigotry) that are violated simply by existing or by not sacrificing oneself for others (i.e. slavery). However, the only way to enforce such positive preferences (desires to be accommodated) is by violating the negative preferences (desires not to be invaded upon) of others. For example, a slave owner's positive preference to keep slaves is unjustified, as it violates the negative preferences of those who do not wish to be enslaved. The slave owner could then restate his desire as a negative preference: "I don't want to have my slaves taken away from me", but this would just be rewording the initial statement. Once the enforcement of that preference is put into action, it becomes evident that it's just a positive preference in disguise, since the initial act of enslavement was theirs. That aggressive act was driven by the positive preference "I want to have slaves", which could only be reworded as "I don't want to not have slaves", which is a blatant double negative. Since the enforcement of a positive preference over a negative preference is in itself a violation of the Golden Rule, only negative preferences are morally viable.

When an individual violates the negative preferences of others unjustly, they lose the right to have their own preferences protected to the same degree that they committed a violation, as demanding righton for yourself when you break those of others is hypocritical and therefore invalid. Since preferences cannot be measured, the amount of force we can justifiably use to punish criminals for their actions is also indeterminable, and since excess punishment harms criminals worse than what their crimes deserve, we should keep force to the minimum necessary to make them stop and make amends for their actions. This way, the more that a criminal threatens (verbally or otherwise) to repeat their actions and resist consequence, the more force we can rightfully use to make them comply.

From these conclusions, we can now restate the Golden Rule as, "Do not violate the valid negative preferences of others". This can be expressed

  • in deontology as "We have a duty not to harm the preferences of others",
  • in consequentialism, "We ought to avoid outcomes that contradict preferences",
  • in virtue ethics, "Those who respect preferences are of pure moral character"

So depending on the individual circumstance (i.e. personal decisions versus social/organizational policy-making versus character assessment), we may use this principle differently, but the underlying moral remains the same.