This view of morality, or ethics, is grounded in certain specific beliefs, intuitions, and insights about human beings and human values. One is the belief that all human beings want or desire well-being or happiness, and want to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering. Another is the intuition of the equal worth or value of human beings.

Jerald Richards — Professor of Philosophy at Northern Kentucky University and teaches ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy of nonviolence, and philosophy of peace and war. He has published articles on nuclear deterrence, just war morality, nonviolence, the Gulf War, Gandhi, Radhakrishnan, and criminal punishment.

To recognize the equal worth or value of human beings leads to a respect or regard for them. Generated from these insights are the basic moral principles that we should (ought) not cause harm to others, should protect others from harm, and should promote the well-being of others. So at the heart of bad, wrong, unfair, unjust, or inappropriate behavior is causing harm to human beings (including oneself). And at the heart of good, right, fair, just, positive or appropriate behavior is protecting others from harm and/or promoting their well-being.

Also generated from these insights and principles is the sense that all human beings have a moral right to at least a minimum level of the satisfaction of those needs without which they would not be able to enjoy well-being or happiness. To respect or regard others as persons of equal worth and value is to act in ways that promote their well-being by helping them to obtain the things that satisfy their basic and uniquely human needs. Basic human needs are needs for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, nurturing, basic education, security, and a benign environment. Other uniquely human needs would include relating to others in terms of love, a sense of rootedness and community, a sense of self-identity, creating things of value for self and others, and a sense of meaning and purpose.

Historically, these understandings, beliefs, insights, intuitions, and principles have been assumed under a more general foundational guiding ethical principle, the principle of reciprocity. This principle has been stated in various ways, among which are “do to others as you would have others do to you” and “don’t do to others what you would not want others to do to you.” This principle is present in and fundamental to several ancient cultures, traditions, and religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism. Secular versions of the principle have exerted positive influence in the past several centuries. The moral philosophies of I. Kant and J.S. Mill are classical examples of ethical systems that give primacy to the principle of reciprocity as it evolved out of both secular and religions traditions. The principle of reciprocity and the supporting principles of not harming others, protecting others from harm, and promoting the well-being of others are essentially principles of compassion, love, and a generous concern for the well-being of others. From these principles, all other principles necessary for the guidance of the moral lives of human beings can be derived. For example, all the types of harm we can cause others can be addressed in the form of principles, such as “do not lie,” or “do not steal.”

Often overlooked, perhaps not fully grasped by our minds and imaginations, when we think and talk and write about common or universal morality, is the significance of the necessary requirement of nonviolence (in thought, word, and deed) in the successful fulfillment of the requirements of the principle of reciprocity and its associated principles. Incumbent upon persons who have been grasped by this significance is a commitment to the creation of cultures of nonviolence around the world. The specific dynamics of this creative activity would vary from culture to culture depending upon, among other things, the social, political, economic, ethnic, and religious conditions in a given culture. This activity would be positive and constructive but would necessarily include creative critiques of the major sources of violence in the modern world, including the militarization of the nations of the world, unjust systems of distributive justice, and retributive systems of criminal justice. Other abuses of power that are most often violent in nature and which call for creative critiques are child abuse, spouse abuse, involuntary servitude, police brutality, political corruption, ethnic cleansing, ageism, sexism, racism, nationalism, and terrorism.

Key to the creation of cultures of nonviolence is a continuing nourishment of the primary intuitions of the equal worth and value of human beings, and their entitlement to the enjoyment of certain rights, especially the right to respect and dignity.

No list of activities that can help to keep these intuitions alive will be useful to all human beings in all circumstances, but there are some general activities that have proven to be helpful. Among them are the following:

  • 1. Encouraging and nurturing a healthy self-respect.
  • 2. Reading about and reflecting upon the lives and actions of persons who are moral exemplars.
  • 3. Developing a sense of the uniqueness of human life and of individual human beings.
  • 4. Reflecting upon the many capacities of human beings and their positive and constructive possibilities.
  • 5. Developing an awareness of our shared experiences on this planet: having similar hopes, needs, and goals; the precariousness and frailty of human existence; and our mutual interdependence in living and in doing the things we want to do.
  • 6. Developing the powers of understanding, empathy, and sympathy.

With the continuing nourishment of these primary intuitions, the commitment to the principle of reciprocity and its supporting principles will be reaffirmed and strengthened.

As more and more persons are introduced to or reminded of these intuitions and principles, and as they grow in their understanding and commitment, they will become more compassionate, loving, and generous. They will present to their friends, neighbors, and even enemies an alternative way of living which will result over time in the decrease in all forms of harm, violence, and injustice, and in the creation of cultures of nonviolence. But even then, eternal vigilance will be required and each new generation will need to be introduced anew to these primary intuitions and fundamental principles.

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