Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Is There a Basis for Loving All People?

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Is There a Basis for Loving All People?

Article excerpt

Many ethical systems hold that there are obligations to love and value all human beings. This essay assumes the existence of such universal obligations, and argues that a divine command meta-ethical theory provides a better account of these obligations than secular meta-ethical theories, such as the evolutionary biology and contractual meta-ethical accounts that are favored by many psychologists. God's command to humans to love their neighbors as themselves not only explains the existence of such obligations, but also gives a plausible account of the psychological motivation for acting in accord with such a duty.


Many ethical theories hold that human beings have at least some moral obligations that extend to all human persons. A famous example can be found in the renowned theory of Immanuel Kant. Kant (1785/1993) gives a number of different formulations of "the Categorical Imperative," which he claims is the supreme principle of morality. One of the best-known is as follows: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means" (p. 36). Kant holds that every human person, every member of "humanity," has intrinsic worth or dignity and therefore must be treated as an "end" and never simply viewed merely as a means to some other person's happiness. Such an ethic clearly implies that the moral obligations of a human moral agent cannot be limited to people who belong to the same family, ethnic group, nation, or race as that agent.

Let us call an ethic that posits obligations that transcend such distinctions a "universal ethic." I shall not take this term as implying that moral obligations are limited to human persons. A universal ethic may also hold that there are obligations to animals, and, if there are any such creatures, aliens from other worlds. (Not to mention God and angels, if Christianity is true.) However, a universal ethic must at least hold that moral obligations apply to all human persons, regardless of gender, class, nationality, etc.

Kant's ethic is by no means the only example of a universal ethic. Utilitarians, while fundamentally disagreeing with Kant about the nature and ground of moral obligations, also typically hold that such obligations are universal in character. John Stuart Mill (1998), the most famous proponent of this type of ethic, says that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (p. 55). To apply such an ethic, one must of course determine whose happiness must be taken into account. Here Mill says clearly that the answer is simply the happiness of anyone who may be affected by an action (p. 64). It is true that most often it is the case that human actions only affect a limited number of people, and thus the moral agent only needs to consider the particular people who will be affected rather than something so grand as the happiness of all humankind (pp. 65-66). Nevertheless, Mill says that the end of morality is "the greatest amount of happiness altogether," and he believes the moral agent must not only consider the happiness of "all mankind" but should even go beyond the consideration of human persons to the happiness of "the whole sentient creation" (p. 59).

The concept of a universal ethic is by no means alien to psychologists. Arguably, such an ethic provides the foundation for the American Psychological Association's (2002) Code of Ethics. (1) Principle D, for example, dealing with "Justice," affirms that "psychologists recognize that fairness and justice entitle all persons to access to and benefit from the contributions of psychology and to equality in the processes, procedures, and services being conducted by psychologists" (p. 1062). Principle E strikes a similarly universalist tone, affirming that "psychologists respect the dignity and worth of all people" (p. …

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