In his new book, Moral
Value and Human Diversity, Robert Audi introduces a brand-new ethical
theory called pluralist universalism.
It is not altogether new but rather an original collage of some of the existing
ethical theories. He doesn’t much argue for the view or explain how it is
supposed to work in practice. Anyway, I thought it would be worth introducing here.
I would be interested to hear what everyone makes of it. I’m going to end with
one worry I have.
Audi starts from introducing major ethical theories which he
finds all attractive in their own ways. As a result, he wants to combine three
popular views: virtue theory, Kantianism, and utilitarianism. The combination
of these views, he thinks, can capture three main ethical values which any
plausible philosophical account must find room for. These are:
- Happiness (as well-being that consists of the balance of pleasure over pain and suffering).
- Justice (understood as a requirement to treat persons equally).
- Freedom (of which Audi says surprisingly little).
It’s clear that there is a connection between the ethical
theories Audi wants to combine and these main values he has chosen. Utilitarianism
is centered around happiness as but also defends the impartiality of 2 (and
many utilitarians argue for freedoms too). Kantians often take something like 2
as the core of their view but also advocate the importance of freedom (and
happiness too). And, even virtue theorists think of justice as a virtue and
happiness as ultimate aim resulting from virtue.
In any case, Audi formulates on the basis of the theories and values above the
following moral principle:
(PU1) Optimise happiness so far as possible without
producing injustice or curtailing freedom (including one’s own).
(PU2) And, internalise (PU1) so
that it will be automatically presupposed and strongly motivating in a way that
yields moral virtue.
Because the values of 1-3 are incorporated in (PU1) but also
put into a lexical order, an agent who internalises that principle because of
(PU2) will know what to do when the basic moral values conflict.
It is important to notice that Audi is explicit about the
way in which pluralist universalism places the main moral values in a precise
order of importance. Justice and freedom are more valuable than happiness.
Justice and freedom themselves do not need to be put into an order, according
to Audi, because justice requires maximal amount of freedom that is possible
within the limits of peaceful coexistence. The value of freedom cannot demand
more than that.
And, that’s about it. What do you think? Here’s the main
worry I have. I am wondering about the consequences of giving the maximal
amount of freedom such an absolute ranking in the principle.
The first part of the principle is basic utilitarianism –
optimise happiness. In one sense, if justice is treating all persons equally
then the first part cannot conflict with the justice requirement.
Utilitarianism treats everyone equally because everyone’s happiness counts the
However, one classic worry about utilitarianism is that it
seems to leave no room for the freedom of the agent. Presumably, in any
situation there is just one (or few) ways of acting in ways that optimize
happiness. By utilitarian standards all other options are wrong: options that
one is not free to take. If this is right, then optimizing happiness itself
curtails freedom in all cases – especially one’s own freedom to take whatever
other options seem appealing at the time. Audi is, however, clear that freedom
always trumps the optimizing requirement. And, Audi really means a lot of
freedom – freedom only limited by threats to peaceful coexistence.
Maximal freedom is also supported by the other disjunct of
the second part of the principle which too always outweighs happiness
optimizing. This leads me to think that the first part of the principle,
optimize happiness, never has any bite on the actions of moral agents. Absolute
Freedom, supported by a formal conception of justice, wins at end of the day any
other alleged moral demands. The worry is that Audi is presenting the wolf of
libertarianism in the sheep clothing of Kantians, utilitarians and
I also have other worries. Does justice always side with
maximal amount of freedoms compatible with peaceful coexistence or does justice
also require giving people what they deserve even when this limits the freedoms
of others? Is (PU1) principle substantial enough to yield moral virtue?