The Principle of Good

“Every art or applied science and every systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seem to aim at some good; and good, therefore, has been well defined as that at which all things aim.” With this idea, Aristotle launched his inquiry into what it means to be a good human with a good life in Book One of his work Nichomachean Ethics. Aristotle theorizes that there is this “goodness” or “happiness” towards which every human is striving, and anything that does not contribute to the happiness of the universe is unethical. It was later modernist philosophers, such as Francis Bacon, that would eventually move Western philosophy out of this idea, pursuant to scientific approaches to reality, science and truth.

What makes Aristotle an important part of this conversation is that he was the first philosopher to move beyond the theoretical (pre-Socratic) question of how people live well and advocate for more practical ethics. Part of this practical side of this conversation is the “means versus ends” debate; that is, “Do questionable means justify a ‘good’ end?” For centuries, questionable means have been utilized to pursue this abstract idea of goodness and even equality. In the Crusades, both Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other in an effort to establish religious and geographical dominance (all for the glory of God, I guess). In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s “final solution” claimed the lives of millions of Jews and contributed to a war that killed millions more in order to create a perfect world. In communist Russia and China, millions of dissidents were executed for the sake of paving a convenient path to domination.

In each case above, the end game in mind was believed to be good. Religious dominance, a place of economic equality, a land of conformity and comfort, and so on. Within the worldviews of the time, every end goal was believed to be worth fighting for. In 2017, we can look back and we are abhorred by each of these horrific events. We also don’t hold conformity and religious dominance in very high regard, very much favoring the post-modern values of diversity and personal expression. The horror of these events and the evolving of values work in tandem to suggest that means do not justify ends.

Urdu essayist Raheel Farooq argues that “The intelligent have plans; the wise have principles.” These so-called principles, described most convincingly by Emmanuel Kant, can be used to treat people in a universal and equal manner. To say it more simply, one can return to the age-old saying that many learned in grade school: “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” Stop-and-frisk is not only unconstitutional, it is typically racially motivated. One can argue that, because certain minorities are more likely to commit a crime in specific geographical areas, it is reasonable to stop and search that person to ensure he or she is not carrying a weapon, illegal substance or other contraband. However, it is harder to argue for it when you of are the race in question. The principle of the matter is that personal liberty and respect should be paid to every single person one encounters until otherwise provoked (per the non-aggression principle).

In my aspiring profession, that being academia, I may encounter an opportunity to: siphon the thoughts or work of others and call it my own; to prevaricate when addressing a topic I know little about; to alter research data so that it favors my argument; to include only research that supports my argument; and many other ethical dilemmas. In every situation, though, I can say confidently that principle holds true. The thoughts of others belong to them, and my borrowing of those ideas should be noted and/or cited. I should practice humility via an admission of ignorance, of which I have plenty, when discussing a topic of which I am ill-informed; there is no excuse for prevarication. I should never alter research simply for the sake of prestige, as the pursuit of truth is why I intend to enter academia.

Values and worldviews change. Acting on principle ensures fairness and equality when wrestling with moral and ethical dilemmas.