Discuss the Distinction Between a Fundamental and a Subordinate Moral Principle

Discuss the distinction between a fundamental and a subordinate moral principle using the utilitarian theory as an example. A fundamental moral principle is a moral principle which is the ultimate basis for evaluating the rightness or wrongness of all acts. It is the ultimate and final reason in itself. It is the intrinsic value of the moral principle itself, not that it appeals to other moral principle or justified by other reasons, that makes it the fundamental moral principle.
The absolutist nature of a fundamental moral principle is such that it can be applied to all acts, real or imaginary. A subordinate moral principle, on the other hand, is a moral principle which is justified by appealing to other moral principles. That is to say, its relevance and applicability in any situation is dependent on its ability to fulfill other moral principles. Therefore, it can only be applied selectively, to situations whereby the subordinate moral principle can help to fulfill other moral principles.
Within the context of the utilitarian theory, a utilitarian would evaluate all acts based on whether, as quoted from John Stuart Mill, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. ” In other words, maximizing happiness is the fundamental moral principle of a utilitarian as a utilitarian will evaluate all acts of its rightness or wrongness based on whether it maximizes happiness and not by any other yardstick.

A non-utilitarian, on the other hand, does not hold the same fundamental moral principle of maximizing happiness. A non-utilitarian can be moral absolutist, a moderate non-utilitarian with several other moral principles. In this essay, I shall use fantastic examples to help distinguish a fundamental moral principle from a subordinate moral principle as fantastic examples will help to eliminate variables, remove uncertainties and to limit the scope of the examples so that it will best highlight the difference between a fundamental moral principle and a subordinate moral principle.
For instance, if not telling a lie would maximize happiness, both the non-utilitarian and the utilitarian will choose not to lie. The non-utilitarian will choose not to lie because he or she believes that it is morally wrong to lie, that it is intrinsically wrong to lie. The utilitarian will choose to adopt the same course of action not because he or she has subscribed to the view that telling lies is intrinsically wrong, but because not telling lies will maximize happiness.
Therefore, the utilitarian chooses to adopt the principle that telling lies is wrong is chosen because in this specific scenario, not telling lies maximizes happiness and not because there is a specific utilitarian rule that not telling lies is always preferable. It is hence a subordinate principle as the reason it is adopted is not due to its own merits or its intrinsic value, but due to its ability to achieve the fundamental overarching moral principle of utilitarianism. However, if telling lies would maximize happiness, a utilitarian would choose to do so.
The fundamental moral principle behind choosing to tell a lie would be because it maximizes happiness and the moral principle that telling lies is morally wrong will be ditched as it is no longer justified. The subordinate moral principle, that telling lies is wrong, is no longer useful in fulfilling the fundamental moral principle, which is to maximize happiness. For example, when deciding to take away the life of someone, a non-utilitarian, will decide not to do so as it is intrinsically wrong to take away the life of another person.
A utilitarian will not consider the morality of taking away the life of another person but only consider if the act will maximize happiness or not. If, as on most occasions, taking away the life of someone does not maximize happiness and instead create immense pain and suffering on the victim’s loved ones and family members who depend upon the victim for a living, what would a utilitarian choose to do? A utilitarian will choose not to do so, just as the non-utilitarian will, not because it is intrinsically wrong to do so, but because it maximizes happiness.
Hence, the moral principle of not taking away the life of someone is a subordinate principle as the reason it is adopted is not due to its own merits or its intrinsic value, but due to its ability to achieve the fundamental overarching moral principle of utilitarianism. Consider the situation where an elderly man is under immense pain from an incurable disease and is rendered paralyzed by the disease. His family members are under a lot of stress trying to take good care of him and, observing the overwhelming agony he suffers, are under a lot of pain.
Both the elderly man and his family members beg the doctor to euthanize him, to take away his life. Doing so would relieve him and his family members from a lot of pain and stress. In such a situation, what would a utilitarian doctor choose to do? The utilitarian will choose to take away the life of that elderly person because it will maximize happiness. The moral principle that taking away the life of another person is wrong will be ditched as it is no longer justified in that it no longer fulfills the fundamental moral principle, which is to maximize happiness.
That particular moral principle that taking away the life of another person is wrong is therefore a subordinate moral principle as its relevance and applicability is based on its ability to fulfill the fundamental moral principle, and when it fails to do so, it is cast aside and no longer taken into consideration. In essence, the fundamental moral principle is a moral principle which one adheres to in all circumstances whereas the applicability and relevance of a subordinate moral principle is dependent on its ability to fulfill the fundamental moral principle.
If the subordinate moral principle no longer fulfills the fundamental moral principle, as demonstrated by the examples of white lie and euthanasia, it will be ditched. By using such fantastic examples to help strip down a person’s principles to the barest forms, the fundamental over-arching moral principles one holds can be easily identified and differentiated from one’s subordinate moral principles.

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