Can morality ever be summed up into a theoretical principle? My personal answer is: ”No, but almost.”
Theories are abstract, and relatively simple. Reality is concrete, and far more complex than can ever be captured by a theory.
There are three concepts of morality that have followed mankind throughout history. World religions as well as secular philosophy/culture are built on them. To sum them up in a single word each, I would call them Empathy, Respect and Maximization.
Such words can mean many different things. So let me explain a bit further what I mean with each of them.
With empathy or compassion, I mean caring about people and making emotional connections with them. ”Love Thy Neighbour”, as the Bible puts it. This kind of empathy is based on doing good things for others, for their own sake. Based on their needs, not on your own need to be needed or to be popular or to feel good about yourself. And based on a real understanding of their actual needs, not on your own fantasies about what their needs ought to be or ”truly is”. In secular philosophy, this is a cornerstone of secular humanism. We are all made from the same stardust, we should care about each other.
With this I mean The Golden Rule. To treat others as you would like to be treated. To not treat others as you wouldn’t want to be treated. Since those ways of putting it are full of loopholes (if I want to die, is it okay for me to murder other people then?), lets put it another way: To treat others by the same rules as you would like to be treated by. To always act as if you wanted the rule behind your action to be universal law. To treat every human being as a goal in herself, not merely as a tool. In secular philosophy, this principle often takes the form of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
An old joke has it that it is better to be happy, healthy and rich thann it is to be unhappy, sick and poor. The reason this is a joke is that it is too obviously true to be an interesting question. It may be interesting to compare one good thing to another or to compare a good thing to a bad. But comparing good things? Of course we want them all! However, Maximization is not about merely getting as much good as possible (and as little bad as possible) for yourself. It is about getting it for everyone. When you spend your energy on others, it should have the highest possible yield for them at the lowest possible cost for you. And vice versa, when you ask others for help – make sure it costs them as little as possible. (With ”cost”, I mean time and energy and potential damage, not just money.) In religion, the principle often takes the form of encouraging the adherants to give charity to those who need it the most. In secular philosophy, it often takes the form of Utilitarianism.
Follow all three paths
Philosophers have a tendency to pick one of these three principles. To make it their one and only, and to bicker with each other about which one is the one and only true principle. In my opinion, they are all misguided: Reality doesn’t work that way.
Again: Theories are abstract, and relatively simple. Reality is concrete, and far more complex than can ever be captured by a theory.
When we face a moral question, the three different principles may lead to different answers. This is why philosophers want to pick a single principle: If we don’t do that, we will never find The Final Answer. The problem is that there is no such thing as a final answer. Unless you consider ”Don’t give up, keep looking for better solutions” to be a final answer.
When you face a moral problem, try to find a solution where all three principles are in harmony. If you succeed, be at peace: The problem is solved. If you fail, then settle for the least bad option you have available. Settle for now, but keep looking for better solutions. Do not fool yourself that a bad thing is good just because you couldn’t find a better option. If you do, you may close your eyes to future possibilities.
The three principles protects from each other
Imagine the horror of growing up with parents who never loved you. Who gave you what you needed only because it was the right thing to do. Imagine it – or remember it, if this or worse actually happened to you. It is not a good thing.
Living by a purely theoretical morality can be very destructive, for those trapped in your life. Including your family, including anyone who have nobody else to turn to but you, and including yourself. If you are not honest with yourself and your own emotional needs, then your good deeds are likely to twist themselves into something vile. Martyr complex, passive aggressive hidden bitterness, stale moralism, self-deluded hypocrisy. By making yourself miserable for the greater good, you are likely to eventually make everyone else miserable as well. Or to simply give up, and embrace corruption.
We humans are emotional beings with emotional needs. A cold and calculated morality will never be enough for us. We need empathy, for ourselves and for each other. But empathy is never enough, not in the big world out there. It might be enough in your family, if everyone there is emotionally healthy. To handle a world with billions of people, however, we do need cold and calculated morality. Without Respect or Maximization, we don’t have any tool for macro scale morality.
Imagine the horror of a leader who would rather let the entire world die than to break a good rule. Rules doesn’t always work as intended. We need some flexibility in how to follow the rules and in when to follow them at all. Respect without Maximization can lead to all kinds of horrors.
Imagine the horror of a leader who would do anything for a mathematically good result – no matter who got trampled along the way, or how badly. Without Respect, nobody is ever safe. Maximization without Respect can lead to all kinds of horrors.
The three principles of morality need each other.