The P and N theories in ethical thought

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By Marcello B. Zappellini

More than 50 years ago, Alberto Guerreiro Ramos wrote an article in which he discussed two forms of thinking about the problem of the modernization of societies, to which he titled Theory N and Theory P. Basically, by “theory N” he wanted to say a form of thought in which every society, by a law of historical necessity, seeks to reach the stage of the societies developed following its steps, and, by “theory P”, he stated the ideas that there is no “location” of modernity and that each nation can modernise itself according to its own trajectory. In other words, Ramos fought against the idea of a unique model of development and defended the freedom of the different nations in terms of formulating and seeking modernization trajectories.

No matter how instigating the proposed dichotomy is, Ramos does not seem to have been successful in terms of disseminating it to the world; as an example, it is perceived among the theorists of the new institutional economy, still little discussed during the Sixties, the use of path dependence models for the understanding of the development processes. Still, we want to recover the theories P and N and discuss them briefly in the context of ethics.

It is known that many of the great currents of ethical thought aspire to the universality of their principles. Kant, for example, when formulating its categorical imperative, affirms that this is the moral principle that any rational person would adopt; Bentham established a principle of utility that is also intended universally valid, but focused his attention on the results of the action. Both, therefore, put the ethical as necessary. Only the Aristotelian ethic of the virtues seems open to the idea of the possibilities, for although the virtues are necessary, its application in different contexts does not follow a previously established formula. Thus, thinking in ethical terms, a morally approved action is the same in all cases according to Kant and Bentham, while for Aristotle is necessary to make a rational reflection in each situation about what can be considered virtuous and, accordingly, ethical.

Theories of type N are, by definition, strongly deterministic; P-type theories emphasize freedom, to for Ramos it’s not opposed to determinism: according to his analysis, determinism without freedom is fatalism, and freedom without some determinism lies in nihilism. If this reflection is applied to ethical thinking, it is a moral theory that insists on the necessary limit to the freedom of the human being (even though Kant asserteth that obeying reason is the true freedom), but, on the other hand, one that insists on the possibility risks falling into relativism, because the moral action cannot be reduced to a Fiat – for each case, a different kind of action is needed.

In this sense, virtue, it is believed, can be defended as a path that reconciles the possibility and necessity. Moral action is necessarily virtuous, and virtuous action necessarily leads to happiness – but in each context virtue is exercised differently and happiness is defined by the person. The biggest problem of relativism is overcome by the existence of a solid foundation on which ethics are built.

This reflection is still embryonic and requires greater deepening in order to effectively discuss the necessity and possibility models in the context of ethical thinking. Later developments are fundamental, but at the moment, it is irresistible to end with a word game: In today’s world, it is less possible to think about good but, paradoxically, it has never been so necessary.