Why We Want to Universalize Principles

Often at work I get flack for how hard I work and how dedicated I am to performing tasks to the best of my ability. I work in food service, so what I do is not changing the world, however, I still take the work seriously and I apply myself. There are two reasons for this. One, I believe everything we do is training for everything else we do in life, so if I do not apply myself for eight hours a day five days a week, I will be conditioned to not applying myself and I will do that in other parts of my life. The second reason is that I believe in universalizing principles. The principle in question here is applying yourself to the best of your ability at work is a good thing. If this is to be a principle, it must be universalized and applied to all people, which includes me. If I want other people to work hard, I must work hard myself.

Have you ever seen a coworker intentionally be lazy or disregard a task they should complete with the direct intention of leaving it for someone else? Have you then heard that same coworker bemoan the fact that no one else in the place works very hard? I see it every day, and I wonder, “How can you expect other people to meet standards you yourself are not willing to?” Of course, I complain when other people do not apply themselves, but I am justified in doing so.

I am justified in my complaints about the poor work ethic of my coworkers because I have a strong work ethic. I apply myself to the best of my abilities, so when other people do not do the same, they are not meeting the principle of applying yourself to the best of your ability at work is a good thing. If my coworkers believed in the principle, applying yourself to the best of your ability at work is a bad thing, then they are not justified in their complaints about other people not working very hard. As we would expect by now, universalization of principles has much greater implications.

Universalizing principles is fundamental for living in a civilized society. We know that theft is morally wrong. That is the one of our basic moral principles, and it is something that even the thief agrees is a valid principle. If theft was a good thing, the thief would have no incentive to steal because what he stole would be stolen from him immediately. However, if private property is recognized, then the thief is secure in knowing that no one else is going to steal what he wants to take from others, and no one will steal from him after he has stolen. Universalizing the non-aggression principle, the initiation of force is morally wrong, allows us to interact peacefully with others within our society as well as hold others to account when it is violated.

If murder was morally wrong only for those who believed it was wrong, all someone would have to do to get away with murder was to not believe it was wrong. Certainly, this belief would leave the murderer open to be murdered without any repercussions, so it would make sense that universalizing the principle that murder is a good thing would be something this person would disagree with. We find this across all violators of moral principles; the violators want the laws to apply to everyone but themselves so they can take advantage of all of those that hold themselves to the standards. Necessarily, this problem necessitates a legal system that adjudicates disputes, prosecutes offenders, and establishes some modicum of justice. What constitutes such a system and whether or not what we have is a moral system is outside the scope of this article.

Even criminals know that they are breaking the principle of universalization for moral standards. This is evidence not only of universalization itself, but it is evidence of the fact that agreeing upon moral standards is something we have already done. The necessity for a complex legislative system is an unnecessary one. Everyone knows that you should not hurt people or take their stuff and you should keep your word. So all we really need is a service provider that will defend us from those that want to hurt us or take our stuff, and another one that arbitrates the disputes that arise from someone trying to hurt us, take our stuff, or break their word. These are systems that can be voluntarily chosen in the free market.

Your car insurance has universal standards that must be met, and there are dozens of providers that will meet those standards in various different packages for various different prices. And, if you get into a collision with someone that has a different car insurance provider, your insurer is still able to resolve the dispute very peacefully. There is no need to worry that your arbitration company will not get along with another company. The principles that they apply to every one of their customers also apply to them.

The universalization of principles places the principles as the ideal standard above the influence of man or his legislative laws. Similar to the way religion places God above man, objective moral standards are above the influence of man, which allows for their universalization. Objective moral principles are as justifiable through reason as gravity is through observation, which clearly applies universally to everyone. Principles, like gravity, hold the world together, and like gravity, they establish a universal framework that facilitates human flourishing.

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