A third societal ethics developed by John Stuart Mill is Utilitarianism. His main principle is that those acts are right and good which produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons. It is based on Jeremy Bentham’s earlier theory that pleasure and pain are the main criteria for good and bad. Justice involves social utilities by which general good is realized. It seems to me that Utilitarianism is an appropriate model for a general policy in governance (with modifications as discussed below), while Kant’s second categorical imperative becomes the philosophical basis for individual rights within the modern republic.
The last component of societal ethics is duty as a citizen and by government to each citizen. In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that principles of justice are whatever a rational, self-interested, and unenvious person would choose in a hypothetical society where one’s own position and natural abilities are unknown. He concludes that the highest principle is thus equal and maximal possible liberty for all. The second highest principle is for power and wealth to be distributed as equally as possible consistent with the aggregate benefit of all, assuming an equal opportunity of everyone to attain any higher level of power and wealth necessary for that aggregate benefit. As a citizen our duty then appears to be to support governance that upholds these two principles through voting and public service.
In summary, societal ethics involves benevolence, propriety, and respect for persons outside one’s immediate circle and for social institutions. Moral decisions of a social nature should be based on the imperative to do what makes sense if universally deployed. The individual and society should look to maximize the happiness of the community while respecting individual rights and ascertaining fairness, equal opportunity, and universal prosperity to the extent possible. Failure to recognize these ethical obligations can undermine a meaningful life and have tragic or catastrophic consequences for humanity.