Ethics by Law, Opinions of Others, and Self-Conscience: The Reasoning of Mill
Knowledge of either right or wrong is not a universal understanding because ethos is generally affected by circumstances, society values, and people’s level of exposure. According to Mill (67), human being are able to notice and measure right and wrong by the application of the laws and doctrines governing a certain society. However, the laws and doctrines are different depending on the society and the customs of the community members. Ethics always differs since something wrong in one community is right in another different community. Besides using the unwritten insinuations, it is possible to differentiate right and wrong by use of conscience involving measuring of one’s deeds and its effects to other people in and out of the society. Although scholars, such as Miller believes that wrong doings can be revealed from the reactions of other people or law to oneself through punishments, it is generally noted that self-conscience is the best determiner of right and wrong for any individual.
Mill argues that when deliberating about anything being wrong, the implication is that a person should be punished for doing it. The wrong may be written by law, opinion of fellow-creatures or simply by the reproaches of self-conscience. Through punishments for offences or deviation from the right, therefore, Mill believes that would be the real decisive moment of the difference between morality and simple expediency. Two important issues come from Mill’s statement, that is, punishment is important in pursuing morality (or ethics) and secondly, the source of ethics can be law opinion from other people or self-conscience of a person.
Having Mill’s argument in mind that wrong can be known through self-conscience, people’s opinions or the written laws and conventions, Mill (42) explains the measures of right and wrong. According to him, the good results imply that the right actions are done irrespective of the means, that is to say, the end justifies the means (Lyons 98). He argues that testing is an accurate way that is important enough in determining the results. Good results are obtained by the plans and factors that are put in place to generate the required outcome.
Mill’s argument can be seen to be interested in actual results of certain behaviour without necessarily looking into the means through which such behaviour was conducted. Unfortunately, some behaviour can yield good results even though they may not be justifiable in any ethical society. For example, stealing is ethically wrong and according to Mill, this behaviour deserves a punishment implying a contradiction in this scholar’s philosophy. Assuming a person running a charity organization in the community is a thief such that he/she steals to help others. Would that still be considered right because “the ends justify the means?”
Definitely the answer is no and for this reason, self-conscience is the best predictor of right or wrong. In the above case example, people who have no clue that the charitable organization steals to help them will have a notion that the managers of the organization are right (and therefore ethical) until one day the police will come to arrest the proprietors for the allegations.
In other words, although the opinions of other people can be good in determining whether an individual is doing what is right or wrong and deserving a reward, many people hide some unethical behaviours to themselves. This does not make these people ethical even if the society or law enforcers know the person as straightforward, ethical, good, and right. The conscience bites the person even more because it is always by the person such that even when others glorify him, the conscience readily reminds the unethical behaviour involved (Blackledge 101).
Morality is achieved through the employment of various mechanisms in anticipation of good co-existence in the society and this is well defined by Mill as Punishment and reward. When punished, people tend to return to the ethical track and when rewarded they motivate themselves and others remain ethical throughout their life. However, whether rewards or punishment, it is a person who knows when a wrong is done, whether the wrong is known by others and the law enforcers or not. Such guilt, according to Peffer (27), remains in the person’s conscience and can judge the person even without applying law.
In Marxist deontological view of morality, man does not require the divine power to differentiate between right and wrong but human understanding of right and wrong once allowed freedom (Pojman and Fieser 32). This, for instance, helps in many circumstances where freedom and ability to make personal judgement is inevitable. A good example is in medical complications, for example, demanding for abortion or euthanasia that may compel medics to act contrary of self-conscience, law, and opinions of other people but out of freedom to save life relieve pain.
However, a good example of the balance of ethics by self-conscience, other people’s opinions and law has been observed on abortion cases (Albanese 72). Abortion and related ethics is a major challenge for various governments on whether to legalize it. In general, many states have legalized abortion only under medical recommendations. The state and religion are both justified in this sense; religions against abortion want discourage youths from involving in pre-marital sex that is ethically wrong while the state wants to save life that is equally ethical.
Opinion held by others about someone’s committing a wrong is strong. For instance, it is through such an understanding that justice can be upheld or denied, especially in judicial systems. When a judge already knows a victim from other circumstances as a lawbreaker, the judgement may ultimately be unfair. For this reason, states ought to educate the judicial systems so that the judges can understand the role in determining the justice of the cases they preside over. In The Judicial Ethics Forum, Mill (98), Judges are not supposed to have close relations with the suspects and complainants as this will hinder fair judgement. The main argument is that although the wrong is supposed to be punished, the punisher holds a contrary opinion about the offender hence restrains what would be justified ethically based on Mill’s argument.
In the contemporary society, Mill’s argument on punishment for wrong doers may not simply hold water. For instance, money exchanges hands in the court precincts to sway away the decision-making processes over various cases and this ends up hindering the judgement as well as Ethics. At this level, Niebuhr (9) is of the opinion that corrupt judges make poor decision making when handling cases and are not in a position of differentiating right from wrong, hence favouring the wrong suspects and setting them free.
If Mill’s approach was also to be idealized in the legal systems, lawyers would probably suffer the most conscious related guilt for defending people they already know committed the wrong actions and deserves punishment. Generally, lawyers are paid well by a person who has committed an offence making poor innocent people suffer for wrongs that they did not commit for lack of ability to hire lawyers. In that case, the opinions held by others about right and wrong terribly fail, meaning that only the conscience of a person knows the truth, just, and what is ethical.
In addition, being right and wrong is not universally accepted as earlier argued but in a different perspective. According to Birks and Mills (101), people have opposing behaviours where some can feel sorry and others not. Being apologetic is a positive behaviour from any person who cares about others and changes one’s ethical standards, which enables people to value the right and values of other people. This is the beginning of what Mill argues as feeling of wrong from other people.
When a person feels right in some situations and wrong in other situations under similar circumstances, then overall, the person must be on the wrong because what is right will remain right irrespective of contexts. For example, a person relinquished by courts or any justice system for being found ‘innocent beyond any reasonable doubt’ when he/she is aware of having committed the offense in question, remains ethically guilty of even more offences including perjury. This is because the decision of the court may, for instance, clear the person’s integrity through law or through the opinion of other people but cannot clear the ethical integrity within the person’s conscience.
In conclusion, a person must always strive to balance his/her ways in the society so that there is uniformity in judgement straight from personal conscience, other people’s opinions or by stipulations of the law. A balance of the three is a good justification of a person who does what is right given that each of the three perspectives acts as a control of the other. Some people may be deceived by their conscience that they are doing what is right but when such actions are opposed by the opinions of others, the truth is revealed. Besides, the law may control what is right or wrong even if the conscience or other people’s opinions argue otherwise. When the three perspectives agree that a wrong has been committed, punishment should then be allowed to prevail so that the society can be aligned with ethics. In the same way, a rightful person should be motivated through rewards for being exemplary in the society.
Albanese, Jay S. Professional ethics in criminal justice: Being ethical when no one is looking. Pearson Higher Ed, 2011.
Birks, Melanie, and Jane Mills. Grounded theory: A practical guide. Sage publications, 2011.
Blackledge, Paul. Marxism and Ethics: Freedom, Desire, and Revolution. SUNY Press, 2012.
Lyons, David. “Ethical relativism and the problem of incoherence.” Available at SSRN 2117178 (2012).
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism, liberty & representative government. Wildside Press LLC, 2007.
Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral man and immoral society: A study in ethics and politics. Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.
Peffer, Rodney G. Marxism, morality, and social justice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Pojman, Louis, and James Fieser. Cengage Advantage Books: Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. Cengage Learning, 2011.