We praise, blame, and morally evaluate people and their actions all day long. Sometimes we make very important decisions, such as smashing planes into buildings and going to war based on what we think is right and wrong. What makes actions right or wrong? Here?s one answer from a young philosopher.
This week’s guest philosopher is Crede, a second grader at Cheat Lake Elementary School , in Morgantown , West Virginia . Crede likes school a lot! When I asked him what he likes about school, he announced, ?EVERYTHING!!? He especially loves music and art. When he is not enjoying school, he likes to run around, play soccer, play with his twin brothers, and ride his scooter. He likes to build things, so he also likes playing with Playmobile toys, Tinker Toys, and Lincoln Logs.
Crede decided to answer a fundamental philosophical question that has implications for nearly everything we do in life. He chose the central question of ethics, ?What makes actions right/good or wrong/bad??. This question led to another serious question, ?Why bother to do the right thing??. To get started, Crede made a short list of actions that seem to be obviously right and a short list of actions that seem to be obviously wrong. Here is Crede’s quick list:
Helping his little brothers clean up
One of his twin brothers gave the other twin a toy because he was upset.
Giving a cup of hot chocolate to a person who is cold.
Giving someone something they like.
Giving a person flowers
Being mean to other people
Purposely tripping someone.
When bullies force other kids to do things they do not want to do.
Crede constructed a few theories about what makes things right or wrong.
The first one he constructed was:
C1: An action is right when it makes somebody happy and it is wrong when it does not make somebody happy.
This theory is a good start. If we apply Crede’s list to this theory, we get pretty good results. Crede makes his little brothers happy when he helps them clean up, so according to C1, this action would be right for Crede. Giving hot chocolate makes cold people feel good, so giving a cold person a cup of hot chocolate would be right. Fighting, tripping, stealing, etc, make people feel bad, so they are wrong. Despite the strengths of C1 it has a weakness that Crede spotted. He noted doing things that are wrong can make some people feel happy. For example, some bullies seem happy to bully. Bullying is wrong even if it makes the bully happy.
Crede modified C1 to handle his own criticism:
C2: An action is right if it makes the person receiving the action happy, and it is wrong if it does not make the person receiving the action happy.
This helps with the bully problem and it also seems to fit well with Crede’s list of examples. Crede took a few moments to think hard about C2. After a while, he spotted a problem for C2. Crede remembered a time when one of his little brothers put a toy in his mouth. Crede told his brother to take the toy out of his mouth. Crede’s correction made his little brother cry. He was not happy at all. Nevertheless, Crede thought he did the right thing. If he had not told his brother to take the toy out of his mouth, he might have swallowed the toy and choked.
Crede finally settled on a theory that he likes. Crede’s ethical theory is:
C3: An action is right if it makes the person receiving the action feel better than any of the other options, and it is wrong if it does not make the person receiving the action feel better than any of the other options.
Crede’s action telling his brother to take the toy out of his mouth was right because although it made his little brother cry, it was a lot better than not telling his brother to take the toy out of his mouth. If his brother did not take the toy out, he would have felt a lot worse than he did when he was told to take the toy out. The bully problem is also solved by C3. Bullying is wrong because those being bullied would feel a lot better if they were not bullied. This theory has a lot going for it.
Crede faced a second, big question. Why bother to do the right thing?
One reason to bother to do the right thing is to avoid punishment . I mentioned this idea to Crede, but he immediately rejected it. ?Lots of people never get caught or punished for doing bad things.?
Crede’s first answer was that:
People should do the right thing because it makes them feel better about themselves.
The problem with this answer is that some people would not feel better about themselves if they do the right thing. They might feel quite good by doing bad things. In the eyes of some people, doing good things is for the ?suckers.? We have all heard the expression, ?Nice guys finish last.?
Crede’s final answer is:
We should all do the right thing because it makes the world better when we do.