Short Introduction

A Realist, Universal Ethical Theory.

The Principle of Goodness asserts that Good and evil are realities, described as follows:

  • Goodness is to attempt to benefit everyone;
  • evil is to attempt to harm even a single innocent one.

The theory is intended to be scientific. That doesn't mean it can be examined in a physics lab, but it does mean it should be able to be tested in appropriate ways, both for confirmation and disconfirmation. For a theory of ethics, this might be expected to include assessments of outcomes in personal happiness, freedom and openness of society, flourishing communities, and so on. In order to be tested, the basic claim of the theory (that Good and evil are described as above) must have consequences that differ from those of other ethical theories; but, by its nature, such a theory might forever elude the degree of confidence that one might gain in a theory of physics, say. This should not discourage us; perhaps questions about how we should live are really harder than some others!


Like many people (or, it is perhaps true to say, like most), I once assumed unthinkingly that we should try to make as many people happy as possible. After all, what else would a nice person want? But things aren't so simple. This idea is the philosophy called utilitarianism, and if we accept it, we are confronted with questions such as "What if we could make everyone else blissfully happy at the cost of torturing one innocent baby to death?" The true utilitarian would have to answer that the baby be tortured, even though almost everyone can probably see in their hearts that there is something terribly wrong here. But that is such a pathological, made-up problem that I used to assume no such tricky cases would arise in practice, and that, on the whole, this was an ethical way to live.

But difficulties kept cropping up. Is a crime really bad only if there are "sufficient" victims? If a minority, or the weak, or the poor, can be harmed quietly out of the way, so their agonies don't disturb the rest of us, is it really okay to live in happiness off the products of their sufferings? Is a few dispossessed peasants or tribespeople a reasonable price to pay for a really productive mine or farm or electricity-generating dam? The ethics of the "greatest happiness of the greatest number" would have to answer yes.

It was many years until I suddenly saw that this very answer is the damning evidence against this beguiling, but false, ethic. Anything can be excused if we can weigh this and that and decide that this matters more than that. There really is no objective way to measure happiness or misery, so every argument based upon 'on the whole' kinds of considerations are, in the end, flim-flam, and the large and powerful will always carry the day. The poor, the few, the inarticulate, the powerless, will always lose because there is always some way for the well-resourced and well-connected to put their point of view across as being 'on the whole' best, or 'most people will be better off', or 'at the end of the day' is 'necessary' for 'the big picture' or 'the economy' or 'the bottom line'... and so it goes on.

These are the kinds of thoughts that some years ago, quite suddenly, opened my eyes. I saw that nothing else except the welfare of everyone was a worthy goal for a genuine morality. And I found that this is also wanted by others who care for our fellow humans and, indeed, for all our fellow creatures sharing this earth with us. It is the recurring theme of the great religions ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."); it is the inspiration of the best and finest members of our species: Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, and so on. And yet we haven't noticed that the thing they taught was not the false ethic that most of us allow to rule our decisions. The thing they taught, it seems, has never been formulated as an identifiable, self-contained ethical philosophy, and so, when the bottom-liners decide, after 'weighing competing interests', that someone or some fellow creature must suffer, those of us who see that it is wrong have never been able to counter with rational, cogent arguments based on ethical principles. My hope is that the Principle of Goodness will fill that urgent need.

Some Properties of the Theory

The Principle concerns the mind: the willed intention put into action. It does not concern outcomes, and is therefore inconsistent with all consequentialist ethics such as utilitarianism. Outcomes can be magnificantly happy or tragically damaging, but that is a different thing from the ethical dimension; it is the intentions of the moral agents, not the outcomes, that can be described by ethical statements. This is good news, because it has been shown that the kinds of calculations involved in assessing benefits and harms of outcomes, such as any utilitarian theory requires, are impossible.

The Principle appears to be consistent with Kant's categorical imperative (act such that your actions can be examples of a general rule), because the recommendation "Practise Goodness and avoid evil" is a general rule. This question should be investigated in more depth, but if this assumption is correct, it would mean that Kant's imperative is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for moral action.

Developing Guidelines for Understanding and Action

In times past, and even today, it has been, or is, assumed that ordinary men and women need so-called experts (rulers, clergy, academics, economists, wealthy community leaders, etc.) to wisely guide their opinions and choices. The time has come when the last vestiges of this outmoded idea can be cast off, and in no field is this more important than in ethics. By putting a simple test for good and evil in plain words, the Principle gives every person a tool for making ethical choices and for evaluating for themselves the acts of governments, corporations, and other authorities. Often, simply comparing some public policy or government decision against the Principle shows up ethical oversights very easily. And it empowers the individual for ethical action, without restricting each person's individual creativity and preferences. It does not lead to just one allowable act in any given circumstance, but rather rules out some acts and commends others, leaving the moral agent a wide field for individual choice. But it does place limits on the possible choices. Further, these limits are not the same as those of other ethical theories. For example, utilitarianism, faced with a case where one innocent could be harmed to benefit many, must recommend doing the evil, or else it fudges things by positing undemonstrable "wider harm" resulting from the choice to harm the innocent — which, of course, is just special pleading to get the desired result.

The Principle of Goodness, however, tells us not to attempt to harm the innocent, even if we suffer losses from not doing so. We all have our own opinions about what is beneficial, what is harmful, and so on, but this test is much simpler and less easily twisted to suit vested interests than is a utilitarian assessment of whether this or that policy is more or less harmful to more or fewer people, or whether harm A is outweighted by benefit B. For example, is wrecking the environment in a poor country 'outweighed' by the benefits of cheap oil, or lumber, or whatnot, to an importing wealthy country? A utilitarian assessment of such a question can drag on interminably. Not so with the Principle of Goodness: the poor are being knowingly harmed by deliberate action, and that is enough to show that such an action is immoral. If we traded utilitarianism for Goodness, we could all trust that any attempt to intentionally harm anyone for reasons outside their control would be detected and denounced. No one can have this security in a world that runs things according to "the bottom line" or "the big picture" or "strategic considerations", and so on.

The Seminal Paper provides a beginning in analysing the kinds of personal, social, and political arrangements that could be constructed upon a personal or community commitment to the Principle.

We hope to add many more papers addressing specific issues to this website; and we shall soon have facilities available so that readers can submit papers for inclusion here.