The Problem of Reductionist Ethics

I recently re-read Maslow’s so-called “hierarchy of needs.” The primary purpose of this paper is to describe a “theory of human motivation.” It does, however, include one moral imperative, the imperative of self-actualization: “What a man can be, he must be.” This, according to Maslow, is the only way to be ultimately happy. There is also a concession that this imperative is bounded. People are not free to do anything in the name of self-actualization. Instead, they must have “freedom to do what one wishes as long as no harm is done to others.” (italics mine) Maslow’s theory is not a theory of ethics, however, as I, in my very unscientific way, have observed the shift of cultural ethics, these two moral axioms do seem to dominate popular conceptions of morality.

Axiom #1, the self-actualization imperative: What you can be, you must be.

Axiom #2, the no-harm imperative: You are free to act toward needs-gratification and self-actualization so long as this action does not harm others.

It’s my contention that there are significant problems with this system of ethics. This is not to say these two proposals are necessarily bad, but they are incomplete. Here are a few of the limitations of such an ethic.

There is inherent conflict between the two axioms: I could point to several extreme examples (what if one man’s idea of self-actualization includes murder?) but you don’t need to look far for a plethora of examples of conflict. Consider, for example, the case of divorce. Divorce, in the vast majority of cases, causes harm – even if only emotional. For Maslow, emotional well-being is one of the pre-requisites for self-actualization. So (at least using Maslow’s understanding of wellness) divorce causes harm, and would therefore not be permitted under the “no-harm” axiom. Yet, many people would claim that their marriage is, in fact, an impediment to personal happiness, to love, and to self-actualization. So, if this is the case, for the person to fulfill the imperative to be happy through self-actualization, they must divorce their spouse. Here a conflict arises. On a human level, this is most certainly a difficult decision as the individual weighs their personal happiness verses the relative harm that will be caused to their spouse, children, etc. It doesn’t take too much analysis to see that personal happiness usually wins out. This reductionist ethic provides to way of mitigating between the two competing moral imperatives.

Several moral categories disappear or lose their meaning: It is no wonder to me that the moral category of “duty” (with the exception of military) is rapidly disappearing. There is simply no room for duty as an ethic in this system. The conception of duty is markedly anti-self interest (breaking axiom #1) and shirking ones duty, except in a minority of cases, does not obviously cause harm. To speak of the “duty” of a mother or the “duty” of a husband or the “duty” of an employee strikes many as old-fashioned. It is an impediment to self-actualization. Duty can only exist when understood in relation to the other axioms. So, duty is OK, if it means the duty to provide for someone’s basic needs (because neglect would be a form of causing harm). Or, duty is OK if, because of some cultural mindset, fulfilling your duty becomes a part of self-actualization. Similar arguments could be made for the moral categories of integrity (what goes on when no one is watching) and hard work. Again, these concepts may still come into play, but only in relation to the above two, and can therefore be discarded if they do not serve the greater good, namely, personal happiness and fulfillment.

This moral framework is built upon an overly optimistic view of human nature. It assumes that there will be few conflicts because people will basically seek after noble and good things. It’s built on humanism which holds that people are basically good. If people are basically good, they will, by their very nature, seek good things which will benefit not only themselves but others. It also assumes, incorrectly I believe, that people will seek the good of others. History, unfortunately, does not show this to be true. Even humanists can see this, but they also have…

…an overly optimistic view of history. The human race is ever progressing and ever moving forward. Yes, we were bad in the past, but those faults are slowly being worked out as history progresses. We are not just getting “smarter” or more technological, we are also becoming more moral and more in tune with the needs of others. This is the progressive/humanist viewpoint. This means that all new conceptions of morality are necessarily better than older forms. Being morally progressive is categorically better than being morally conservative. This strikes me as colossally arrogant! People complain (often rightly) about being ethno-centric. But, this modern viewpoint seems incredibly histro-centric. It supposes somehow that our modern conceptions of ethics are approaching the pinnacle of moral reasoning. Certainly, we have progressed in many areas. Freedom is better than slavery. Democracy is better than authoritarianism. But, to say that everything new is categorically better than everything old is arrogant.

Ultimately, holding these two axioms alone as a moral framework provides an incomplete view of what makes something right or wrong. What do you think? Am I missing something? 


4 thoughts on “The Problem of Reductionist Ethics

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