Single Universal Moral

From The Righteous State
by Severin Christensen

1. — Is a Single Universal Moral possible?

As soon as the individual has begun to discover, that what had until then been presented to him as moral obligations mostly had been disguises of the rulers’ lust for power (handily draped by moral philosophers, pleasing the rulers), so that slogans like “Cultural growth” even had been used to cover egotistical interests, since a word like duty had been used to euphemize the force, which a ruling class could submit its citizens to (compare with expressions like compulsory military service, duty as a citizen etc.), naturally, he will pick up the this small word duty to put it through some futher scrutiny. He will look upon it with great mistrust, so great that it might tempt him to a complete denial. Of one thing at least he would be certain: that if in the future some meaning should be associated with it, if he was to acknowledge certain demands from his fellow citizens as duty, something he would have to adhere to, it is of no use if in advance his own personal appreciation of the importance of these for his own benefits is not recognized. Orders, bids are stadiums left behind, and the “last phase of morality”, a ward’s point of view, which looks him over the head as an independent original and demands sacrifices out of consideration vague ideals as the best for the human kind or the well-being of the most, he looks through as obscure language of power.

The conditions for social peace and order he only sees as demand, whose extent he is able to estimate and consider, solid restricted claims, on which to base a voluntary arrangement. Therefore, a socially peace-making principle can only count on figures, which two parties possibly can assess in a one-dimensional way (i.e. it must be possible to assess them objectively). If the term duty shall be able to survive and in the future be held as a term of consequence, which means something in human relations, it will have to contain a solid objectively definable core. Since future ethics is destined to be based on agreements, declarations; the “only we know”-position has been left for good.

As not only the common man, but also politicians, yes even teachers and moral philosophers have understood the word duty, to a large extent it proved itself to be both vague and ambiguous.

I short, one can say that duty through the ages has come to mean all that, which people through invocation of some authority have wished or demanded from each other. There has been talk about “the duty of martyrdom”, about the duty to take care of one-self, about duty to show the utmost will to selflessness, about compulsory military duty, duty to die for one’s country, duty to not go to war etc. In short, there is no possible way to arrive at a common understanding of the reach of this word.

The English word “duty” is etymologically connected to the word “debt”, which is very serviceable to characterize this fundamental principle of Ethics, if this familial connection is not forgotten and its meaning erodes from “the thing due” to “the good”. As long as the word “duty” is kept close to the mercantile term “debt”, it denotes a deep-rooted notion, which excellently works as the cornerstone in an objective construction of moral.

The word “debt” is very well suited to take the place of the vague “duty”. Since debt is a term, which even entails a consideration of size. What my duty towards the tailor John Doe might be, is something about which we both might know preciously little. A peaceful cooperation with him from the Høffdingian principle: that he in a given situation should expect the ultimate sacrifice from me, would be built on sand. On the other hand he and I know full well what I owe him, and we will both be willing to continue our transactions, if quid pro quo are in balance. No one finds it reasonable to demand more than the pair of trousers from your tailor, which he has agreed to deliver, and no tailor would find it to be good business to demand a larger sum than the one agreed upon. On this the most worthwhile common relation in the world can be established; to pay one’s debts, to fulfill one’s promises (just debt in another form) is all over the world considered to be sufficient to allow for common relations and mutual trust. It is about a demand of a quite different sort than these, which just appeal to friendly, charitable feelings or invoke authority; it is a demand within defined limits, and whose necessity as a minimum to peaceful co-existence everybody understands. Co-existence can go on without gifts out of love and charity, but it cannot continue, if debts is not acknowledged, and promises are not kept. Within the term debt we have, then, the objective moral principle which we were looking for. It expresses the demand, which appears both as a quantity, known to both parties, and as something appealing to the personal appreciation of the individual: as the necessary minimal conditions for peaceful co-existence.

By paying one’s debts one exercises the action which from the earliest times have been stamped as the most fair. Already the Ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle, had begun to formulate the principle of fairness in its basic features, but this word also became distorted and fluent like the word duty. These absolutely false meanings, which today are thought of as the same as the useful, the humane, the equal distribution of the good things in life etc., show us clearly how morale has strayed. What it is about is to regain the notion of the almost forgotten traits of righteousness, to arrive at its core and nature to put it in the place, it deserves as the fundamental condition of Ethics. Since this place it has not yet achieved. At most, most moral philosophers treat righteousness as something co-ordinated the other moral qualities and interpret them as vaguely and fluently based on their personal view on Ethics. Even Stuart Mill, who in his “Utilitarianism” sees it as something relatively independent, treats it almost as an appendix. But it is our duty in the following to show that if any part of Ethics shall develop the possibility of a universal and objective science, then it must be such that the righteous is placed in the centre as the basic principle, which deserves to be liberated as an independent entity, bearing the name Ethics of Righteousness.

Confusion about the nature of fairness, which has been there from Ancient time to our days, is the one, which Paul Rée[1] has expressed: the feeling of justice is something extracted from, a consequence following the punishment of the state, a sort of historical artifact. Actions, which the state threatens to punish, become thereby “wrong doing” and “crime”; out of this the apprehension is formed that certain actions “deserve” suffering. Which actions is hardly of interest, the habit of judging calls based on circumstances all kinds of action “wrong doing”.

Is it not exactly this line of thinking, which the philosopher Timon a couple of thousand years earlier worded like this: “Nothing is from nature’s point of view good or evil, but are only seen as such from the viewpoint of man.” And do we not recognize from the discussions in our days the arguments, which Karneades invoked to support this thinking: the laws are different in different countries, in all states changeable, and the meanings of the peoples about the nature of justice exactly as uneven.

When nonetheless it is one of our main aims in this script to show that this old and modern apprehension of justice as extracted from law, is wrong, we can among other things point out the fact from judicial history that a fight since Ancient times has been let between the positive law and the so-called jus natural, which simply was the result of the independent popular understanding of the right. Already in the Roman state a clear understanding was reached under influence from Greek philosophy that an absolute and sole justice elevated over time and space was given, which only rather fragmented came to expression through the positive, national right.

Already the oldest Greek philosophers had coined a term, to dikaion, the fair, which they described as a part, albeit a very important part of the complex totality, which is called the Ethics. This is called the beautiful and the good. What was the fair, then?

After Pythagoras, it was reciprocation, meaning a way of action, by which equality between attack and defence was desired, both in terms of quantity and quality.

Socrates talks about “non-scripted laws”, which are honored by all, not just in Greece, but also among foreigners. As these he counts that children honor their parents etc., but especially the law of reciprocating good deeds, shown to us by others. The notions, which a law like this has, that the offenders are punished by the consequences of the offenses themselves, in his eyes give them such a special character, that it reveals a lawmaker about man.”

But it is only with Aristotle that one meets a more thorough description of the righteous. Righteousness he does not consider identical with virtue, but as a special part of it. There are two ways of utterings of the just: 1) a distributive righteousness, which guards the right distribution of honor and wealth or other such things among the people in society, and 2) a neutralizing righteousness, which acts as a mediator in the various dealings amongst men.

As for the first, the distributing fairness, it says that if the members do not achieve equally, they shall not receive the same amount. The fairness expresses here a relation between profit and gain.


Differently with the neutralizing fairness. Here, the person’s individual circumstances are not taken into account. In an illegal transaction, for instance a robbery, it does not matter, whether it is committed by a good man towards a bad man, or a bad man towards a good. The law only takes into account the difference, which has manifested itself through the offense, and it treats the two parties equal, since the punishment has the aim of restoring the original equation of loss and gain. In both cases the just action is meant to recognize debt and pay a suitable sum for it.

When it above was mentioned that the judicial history gave us proof that the concept of justice could not be a notion dependent of and based on a term derived positive right, it was not only the idea to point out the fact that Greek and Roman philosophers were of another view. There are a many examples that these philosophical thoughts have had a creative and fruitful influence on legislation. Thus does the request for fair distribution little by little gain momentum in the pigheaded Roman legislation, for instance, by breaking the once and for all fixed compensations, and forcing the law to take specific individual conditions into account. When the law of the 12 tables set the compensation to 25 asses, the later legislation gives the judge some liberty to in his ruling, so that the individual value comes more into play. So it is far from it that the positive legislation is the background for, what is considered fair, on the contrary philosophical ideas have time after time had an influence on the positive legislation.

Ideas! – But they are hardly just pure imagination, since then we would have had no explanation to the fact, which already caught the Greeks: that they are universal and perpetual. But is there no other explanation better than the greek, that these thoughts are divine? Does their universality not lead us to investigate, whether they should have sprung from an omnipresent natural tendency? We shall later on look further into that.

As we have seen, debt and justice stand in a very intimate connection to each other: my debt to Mr. X. has the worth, which Mr. X. has a fair demand that I pay him. The expressions debt – being indebted to, which so to speak give a precise both quantitative and qualitative definition of what I in this case should do, are the only terms suited for an objective Ethic.

Debt appears in two different forms: either is the payment, which is owed, promised, or it is not promised. In the cases, which depend on promises given in advance, the size of the debt is easily calculated, when only one makes it sufficiently clear, what was promised. The other sort of debt emerge from losses and infringements, which the one person inflicts on the other; also in these kinds of incidents will it be possible based on the aforementioned principles to raise justifiable claims for retribution; since it is not just useful but also harmful actions, which can command compensation.

But here we are at a point, which demand further explanation: are you indebted to compensate all the losses you inflict on another human being? If, for instance, you inflict a loss on him by taking something from him, what he in turn has cheated from someone else, do you then owe him compensation? Or if you through competition has damaged his business by having better products than he, or by doing a certain job better?

No, it turns out that the debt cannot be said to have been fully paid, until the thing has been returned to him, who can be called the proper owner, or before the proper owner has received compensation for his loss. It is not enough for us to seek out the one, who was actually in possession of the thing, since he could, as mentioned, have stolen it. He must meticulously prove to be the right owner, prove his right of possession. And that he can only do through the strength of the just or judicial principles, which we already have acknowledged as the centre of the morality: the principle of compensation. The right of possession, in the moral – not the legal – sense to some value can only be substantiated on the ground that an effort equating the value has been performed.

Thus we get a legitimate explanation as to which losses we are indebted to pay, and why, for instance, you do not owe a competitor compensation, even though you give him a loss, because you sell better products. In other words, a clear light is shed over, what morally must be considered infringements (interferences which must be compensated). So now we can answer that by this must be understood interventions in the rightful ownership of ones neighbor, and that no merchant owns his customers. Only interventions in rightful ownership demand compensation; harmful interventions, which cannot be counted as infringements, do not command compensation.

And so we come full circle; the connections of the objective moral have been settled. The basic assumption is the acknowledgement of a moral concept of possession, built on the principle of compensation for receiving. Later we shall see how this assumption leads to very important inferences.

We have already high-lighted how judicial rules concerning issues of possession can have no meaning in this context. That, for instance, repossessing things without provenance or prescriptive rights should contain any sort of right to possess, it would be impossible to justify.

Likewise, the transfer of an article is a reason just as unfulfilling, since it must be assumed that the things I transfer belong to me.

There is only one single exception from these modes of acquisition allowed by law, and that is the transfer of labor. And why? Because that is the only one, which is a direct expression of “in-put to out-put”. If we transfer this same rule, which pertain to the barter: measure for measure, to the original acquisition of a product, we establish an ethical right of possession, by which a human being has the right to own the product, in which his work, his diligence and his ingenuity has been performed. The principle of barter is only secured, as long as it has the ethical right to possession as its basis.

The ethical right of possession, which is thus based on the principle of compensation, and which leads to that inviolable and unlimited special ownership only can be claimed over products created through labor, is inextricably to these two conditions: 1) that human beings are willing to recognize each other as subjects in cases of ownership, i.e. as someone who cannot be owned, who are unlimited masters of their own personality and over such personal utterances of life, which do not infringe the likewise territory of others. I.e. the recognition of a certain right to self-government, whose borders on every cultural level are drawn by the recognition of the same just as extensive rights of others. The right of self-government is inextribly connected to the quality of ownership; the loss of independence, slavery dissolves this quality. To own belongs the ability to choose, this implies a certain freedom to act. 2) that the human beings recognize the equal rights of each other to the non-produced natural goods. Since if any exclusive right, as an prerogative, is argued from a corresponding large effort, which only can be accomplished by effects created through labor, it is evident that in towards the natural values no such prerogative can be imposed. Where no prerogative can be argued, no one’s right must be the rule – since no one can refer to any personal effort – or seen from the other side: equal right, since right here must be taken in the changed meaning (from a negative argument) that such a matter of disposal to a commons, where the one can have no privilege in presence of the other.

It is easily observed that equal right, understood in this manner, is a condition, so that the argued prerogative (the right to compensation) can be upheld and exert itself. If anyone should be granted prerogative to the natural goods also, others would have to, just to accomplish something, to buy access to it and as a result already suffer a lesser profit beforehand.

The strength in the legal system assumed here is, that its rules of possession thoroughly is based on objective reciprocity. It recognizes just as little the acquisition through superior means of power as through personal advantages, when these precisely not lead to positive contributions. To the basis for work (the natural goods) excellent skill gives no special access, because its being stands in no relation to human industry. De big talents come to their fullest potential, when the achievement is accomplished; the legal system attempts precisely to give everyone room to show, what he can accomplish and to give all equal opportunity with regard to certain conditions it controls; it does not make any presumptions, until the result is available; conditions for partaking from the beginning are not imposed.

Therefore, this legal system is also well-suited to become a peace-system: while it recognizes equal, self-governing originals possessing freedom of action and work as the basis for possible exchanges, which leave these originals and their territory unharmed, it takes away the necessity of all violent displacement. Since its aim is to stop all interventions inside these borders of personality, it presents the only possible basis for a stable balanced peace.[2]

Power works through unfair treatment, either out of subjective arguments (feelings, sympathies, ideals), or by simply denying giving reasons (violence, suppression). Justice needs argument from a common objective principle, which is suited to creating safe and peaceful means of co-existence. If human beings do not wish to have imposed balance, i.e. still to live the risky existence in turn having to exercise or be the target of force, if they want to reserve a certain freedom to act, they will have to recognize certain sacrosanct areas, fenced in by the mottos of equal right and equal compensation.

There is no doubt that C. Lambek[3] is right, that as well as the thinking individual must bring order to his personal goals, he must also take an interest in the given principles behind the goals, which have to do with our fellow human beings. And since the thought of omnipotence is hopeless, there is no other way to personal freedom than the social structure, which is called the founding of justice, where the individuals are granted spheres of disposal, within which border anyone’s personal freedom can be played out.

Since the legal system is a mutual arrangement, in which the claim that something should be mine is without meaning, unless I recognize something which is yours, and where an understanding of the reasons and social implications of the right of possession therefore must exist, it is obvious that the animals cannot be included in a society based on law, as human beings will understand it. Our relations with the animals must rest on our goals and depend on our common cultural viewpoints and our religious understanding of the values of life. It can hardly be called progression, when the people of the west more and more consider the animals to be mechanical means of power and the forests to be timber, in contrast to, for instance, the Indians, who have preserved the feeling of awe towards life itself in all its manifestations.

So, the principle of the right way to act must be articulated as the principle, which maintains in all social dealings the balancing of payment and repayment, so that they equal each other’s value, and so that the result ends with each getting and keeping his (by egual pay acquired possession).

The question of an ethical right to possession has by this become the basis of Ethics. Those, who deny that one can distinguish between thing owned by right, and things not owned by right, between things owned by prerogatives by means of the law of egual pay, and things, which cannot become prerogatives, because this law cannot be used towards them, could just as well deny that ethical viewpoints exist at all. And these moral philosophies, which not base the structure of their system on an investigation of the ethical right of possession, will inevitably end in subjectivity.

From the above-written it furthermore is evident that there are two ways, in which one can appear immoral:

1) By refraining from paying a debt, which has been promised, and 2) by violation of other people’s rightfully material or spiritual possessions..

In the first case one has, by directly or indirectly to have made a promise placed the right to the legal claim in the hand of that person. In the last case, it is the first immoral action, which creates such a claim. In both cases the moral action would be the one, which fulfills what the right of possession demands.

The moral concept, as it has been sketched, is a much narrower concept than these of the common systems. But since it to us only was a matter of finding the norm for the behavior, which necessarily must be demanded, when one has the basic conditions for social interaction in sight, and which may have to be in accordance with the social laws of nature, we could not see other ethical terms than fair compensation and debt. The phenomenon connected with them even forms a naturally ended group, which form the essential core of the ideas of morality from all times. In contrast everything which could be seen as belonging to individual or social rules of sensibility or rules of usefulness, all which belong solely to personal ideals or wishes had to be sharply exited as something which, regardless of how warranted and meaningful a part they were playing in life, belonged anywhere else than under the domain of Ethics.

[1] Paul Rée: Die Entstehung des Gewissens. Berlin 1885

[2] Compare the living balance, which exists between liquid and steam in a container, and which is maintained by continued interaction.

[3] C. Lambek: Om vurderingsproblemet. Kbhvn. 1921