In this installment of our series we'll consider ethics, looking at what we mean by this term, what use we have for it and thereby attempting to understand why this aspect of philosophy is so important to everyone. Along the way we'll examine some of the philosophical assumptions made or that need to be considered when constructing or deciding upon an ethical system and finish by looking at some contemporary problems that may be approached with the benefit of the perspectives introduced.
What do we mean by ethics?
In simple terms, morality is the right or wrong (or otherwise) of an action, a way of life or a decision, while ethics is the study of such standards as we use or propose to judge such things. Thus abortion may be moral or immoral according to the code we employ but ethics tells us why we call it so and how we made up our minds. As a result, ethics is sometimes called moral philosophy; we use it to criticise, defend, promote, justify and suggest moral concepts and to answer questions of morality, such as:
- How should we live and treat one another?
- What are right and wrong?
- How can we know or decide?
- Where do our ethical ideas come from?
- What are rights? Who or what has them?
- Should we coerce one another?
- Can we find an ethical system that applies to everyone?
- What do we mean by duty, justice and other similar concepts?
There are many such issues that are typically studied according to the separation of ethics into three sub-branches:
- Metaethics: the study of where ethical notions came from and what they mean; in particular, whether there is an ethical system independent of our own opinions that could be applied to any situation at any time or place.
- Normative ethics: the search for a principle (or principles) that guide or regulate human conduct—that tell us what is right or wrong. A norm is just another way of saying "standard", so normative ethics is the attempt to find a single test or criterion for what constitutes moral behaviour—and what does not.
- Applied ethics: the study of specific problems or issues with the use or application of moral ideas investigated in normative ethics and based on the lessons of metaethics. Applied ethics may sometimes coincide with political or social questions but always involves a moral dimension.
The distinctions between these will become clearer by example as we consider them each in turn. For the time being, we could note that the question "what do we mean by good?" would be metaethical, "what should we do to be good?" would be in the domain of normative ethics, while "is abortion moral?" would be the province of applied ethics.
Why study ethics?
Of all the areas of philosophy, ethics is the one that seems most pertinent to us and it is no exaggeration to say that everyone is engaged in ethical thought at most times in their lives, knowingly or otherwise. Moreover, it is quite mistaken to suppose that philosophers have a monopoly on deep ethical ideas while the rest of us bumble along, blissfully unaware of the import of the questions we suggested above; instead, a glance at the newspapers, television, internet, as well as books, films, plays, together with conversations on every street corner or in public houses and cafés, shows that each day we are confronted with ethical problems and have to make ethical decisions.
We discuss these matters all the time, then; in this piece, we'll try to see how a philosophical treatment can aid us in this endeavour. How well do the ideas we currently use hold up to scrutiny? Are they based on sound assumptions, or could we think otherwise? Are we applying them correctly, or as best we could? Perhaps most importantly, are there alternatives we have not yet considered?
Some historical perspectives
If ethical thought is universal as we suggested above then it should come as no surprise that there were many thinkers in the past who put forward their ideas and tried to improve on what came before them. Many conceptions of ethics in the ancient world were based on or influenced by the Greeks, particularly Plato and Aristotle. The former thought that people were inclined to be good and desired happiness; the problem was to know what would bring about that good in the first place. If they acted wrongly, it was due to not understanding how they should go about achieving happiness in the best way—not because they wanted to act wrongly or badly. In that case, ethical difficulties were epistemological ones; wrong came from error, not intent.
Plato also suggested four virtues: wisdom, courage, justice and temperance; Aristotle agreed but added others, like generosity, truthfulness, friendliness and prudence. However, Aristotle went further than his former tutor and said in his Nicomachean Ethics that goodness is in the actor, not the action; that is, an act is virtuous because of the manner in which a person has chosen it—having done so through sound knowledge and by holding oneself in a kind of equilibrium, making the decision for specific reasons and not at a whim—and thus not because the act is good in itself. This is an important distinction to grasp: the idea was that something we do is virtuous because we choose it when calm and collected, aiming for the best, as opposed to anything specific about the deed. That would mean that one answer to the question "how shall we live?" could be "by being good", instead of "by doing good".
Another point of note is that neither Plato nor Aristotle specified what we would now call a normative ethic; it is one thing to say "acting in such and such a manner, you will choose the good", but quite another to be able to say exactly what that good consists in. Nevertheless, this was a common trait in the ancient world: in the Homeric epics and the stories and plays thereafter, the virtues were displayed practically. Concepts like honour or courage were defined by their use, showing a character being honourable and courageous but also demonstrating when these became foolhardy or even failings. Once again, this was what we might consider a fairly loose explanation of ethical conduct; a hero was honourable because he acted in a way called honourable, not because honour was defined and his conduct matched the description. Moreover, even the gods made mistakes and these showed that virtue was to be lived, not explained.
From the point-of-view of normative ethics, the Greek ideas lacked explicit rules by which to discern how to live and answer moral questions. Various religious texts were able to provide these but were open to different interpretations. Given the acceptance of whatever sanction was claimed, though, a guide for conduct was provided; even then, however, they were not as free from ambiguity as we might suppose and required application by both religious and legal authorities.
In spite of the increasing sophistication of ethical ideas and the legal precedents that were often based upon them, from roughly enlightenment times onwards a great deal of moral theorising took place. According to Berlin, this was due in large part to the resurfacing of three old assumptions:
- that to all genuine questions there is one true answer and one only, all others being deviations from the truth and therefore false, and that this applies to questions of conduct and feeling, that is, to practice, as well as to questions of theory or observation—to questions of value no less than to those of fact;
- that the true answers to such questions as these are in principle knowable;
- that these true answers cannot clash with one another, for one true proposition cannot be incompatible with another; that together these answers must form a harmonious whole...
The result of such assumptions was for some the building of ethical systems, often elaborate but occasionally simple that would tell us the true way to govern conduct because, as Berlin's points note, the perfect ethical system both exists, is knowable (that is, we can find it) and—much like the Highlander—there can be only one. Some thinkers used God as their foundation, others reason and still others both, but the trend throughout was that the aim was achievable.
In the meantime, there were a few skeptics like Bayle and Huet who were casting doubt on the whole enterprise and—especially for the former—influencing generations to come. They criticised these assumptions and doubted the efforts of the system builders and theorists like Descartes and Hobbes. Vico was also opposed to some enlightenment ideas and criticised the possibility of finding the nature of anything, man or good included. The history of this time is too complex for our purposes here and Schneewind's study is more than enough; suffice to say that this trend continued: thinkers explicitly or implicitly convinced by the three assumptions tried to construct systems while those who were not opposed them, sometimes with other suggestions. An understanding of right and wrong based on duty came to be contrasted with one based on consequences, alongside evolutionary ideas and some new applications of Aristotle; we shall look at these below after first considering the metaethical questions that they all rely upon.
As we remarked above, in metaethics we look at the principles that underlie ethical systems and their applications. If we take a question like "is it wrong to be mean to Hugo?" for instance, the metaethical aspects we would first need to clear up might be to ask:
- What do we mean by wrong?
- How do we determine it?
- Who does it apply to?
- Is the definition of wrong at our discretion or does it apply according to a fixed standard independent of our opinions?
- What does a correctly identified wrong action imply, if anything?
As we pass through some of the areas of metaethics below, we'll see how each of these questions could be answered.
Where do ethics come from?
It seems unlikely that storks also bring ethical ideas with them, perhaps slipped in as reading material for a baby bored with waiting on a doorstep; instead, we could expect some kind of foundation or justification of a rule or suggestion such that we are both inclined to accept it and appreciate why we should. There are several possible candidates:
- From God.
- From an abstract world where concepts exist in some way.
- From agreement between people.
- From a consideration of duty, or virtue.
- From a consideration of the consequences of various actions.
We may be able to think of others. At this early stage we can make an initial distinction by suggesting two general answers to our question: on the one hand, ethics are already decided but need to be discovered—whether they be created by someone or something, or just "waiting" to be found; on the other, they are not set in stone but are discussed in one way or another and arrived at through agreement, with due regard for practicalities. We'll now consider each element of these in turn.
To what or to whom do ethics apply?
The answer to this question is not at all obvious. Over the course of history, ethical systems have been presumed to be relevant only to free men and not slaves, or to white men and not black, or civilised men and not savages, or to men and not animals and environments. Sometimes there were such codes for all these groups, but they were different or separate. Why should there not be a single system for all? On the contrary, though, why should there be?
One way to view this issue is via the concept of rights, which are subject to much the same criticisms. Typically a right is granted by a government or authority and represents some principle that—one way or another—is to be considered inviolable or not to be taken away, such as the right to life. Some people think rights are decided upon, perhaps by suggesting that everyone should be entitled to live without perpetual fear of being murdered for no particular reason; others think these rights are the consequences of eternally existing ethical codes discovered by reason or granted by God. Of course such a right does not imply that no-one will try to hit Hugo a glancing blow about the head, but only that doing so will have consequences.
Should such rights apply equally to everyone? Although the egalitarian spirit would seem to suggest so, in fact matters are complicated every day by circumstances—particularly dilemmas like kill or be killed. In that case, perhaps we should be more sophisticated in our use of ethics?
Some people think that there is little or no justification for seeking and applying ethical codes to humans and not to animals. On the contrary, say others, animals do not understand the concepts of ethics and rights and hence cannot take part in a society employing them. If that were so, says the counter-argument, neither could they be granted to infants and the mentally incapacitated. One reason for proposing a wider use of ethics to cover animals too is the idea that rights can in principle belong to anything—even an environment.
Clearly the question of who or what can have rights or ethical value has consequences for the codes we may draw up. Some argue for the attribution of value of the basis of it being self-evident that people (or animals) have, for example, the right to live in decent conditions; others that there is a practical justification for so doing.
Ethical realism and anti-realism
As we discussed in the sixth article and have seen above, there is much dispute and disagreement as to whether ethical values exist independently of human ideas; for example, would it be wrong to steal even if there is no-one around to do so or nothing to take? If we answer "yes" to such questions then we are ethical realists, holding values to be a part of reality (or cognitive claims about it) in some way; if we respond "no" then we are ethical anti-realists (or non-cognitivists), supposing to the contrary that—whatever they might be—they are not.
Objective, subjective and intersubjective
An issue that tends to come up frequently in debates on ethics concerns the objectivity or otherwise of moral laws or values; in fact, this is another way of understanding the question of ethical realism. There are three usual positions advocated; ethical values could be:
- Objective: depending only on the object of inquiry, and hence independent of what we think, hope or expect to find.
- Subjective: Depending on the subject doing the inquiring.
- Intersubjective: Depending on agreement between subjects.
Like most things, the best way to gain an appreciation of what these distinctions mean and imply is by way of examples. Suppose we take the proposition "it is wrong to hit Hugo" and try to understand it from each position: according to the objective reading, the proposition is true or false whether or not we approve of it (a reasonable point of issue), and even if no-one but Hugo was around (another typical circumstance). Indeed, we could interpret it as saying that it would be wrong to hit Hugo even if he did not yet or ever exist; the important thing is that the truth or falsity is not dependent on what we think of Hugo, what time of day it is, how we are feeling and whether it is raining, but only on the facts or reasoning—whatever they may be—that decide the truth value.
On the subjective reading, the truth or otherwise of the proposition rests in part or wholly on the judgement of the subject suggesting it. In this case, the wrongness of hitting Hugo would be decided by the moral ideas the subject had happened to decide upon, according to his or her conscience, often because the notion of an objective choice on the matter has been rejected or criticised.
For the intersubjective version, it might be that an agreement to agree can be reached—in whatever way—whereby it is decided that the proposition will be considered true or false. This is not objective, because it depends initially on the opinions of those concerned and hence is not independent of them—the same group may choose to say otherwise at another time, for instance; neither is it subjective, since the decision is taken as an ethical standard to apply across the group, not just individually.
Another example could be the adoption of a declaration of rights, whether it be that of the French in 1789 or the more recent United Nations version. An objective critique might say that not all the rights claimed can actually exist or be supposed to be independent of us, while a subjective opposition might view the notion of rights as meaningless in the first place; nevertheless, an intersubjective agreement between governments could effectively say "we are going to take it as given that these rights exist and act accordingly". That, of course, is what we generally do—the best we can, while taking into account philosophical arguments.
A significant problem in ethical debate occurs when participants employ either objective or subjective understandings of morality and are using different assumptions before they even lock horns properly. A person who does not believe in the possibility of objective ethical values would find it difficult to achieve any common ground with someone who does; it may be that there is no way to reduce the one to the other. This, we might suppose, is often the attraction of intersubjective reasoning. Generally speaking, though, subjective and intersubjective ethical ideas are often mistaken.
Here again we see one of the cautions of the philosophical approach: the person we are speaking to may not share our starting point-of-view, so we need both to examine it and try to see our own ideas from their perspective if we hope to get the most from our discussion.
Relativism and pluralism
Aristotle wrote in his Nichomachean Ethics:
Fire burns both here and in Persia, but what is thought just changes before our very eyes.
According to Protagoras:
Man is the measure of all things.
These are the beginnings of relativism in ethics: ethical relativism takes note of the apparent fact that ideas about what conduct we call good and bad, or acceptable and unacceptable, has varied across time and between societies—in short, that some people call things "wrong" that others do not have any problem with.
Individual relativism is the idea that people create their own moral codes, separately from anyone else; this is found in Nietzsche, and also the character Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment who wrestles with the notion that great men—like Napoleon, in his example—are not subject to the same rules as the rest of us but decide their own. Cultural relativism holds that moral values are relative to the cultures they are found in. Support for the latter is found in studies comparing societies or just from the simple experiment of travel: some countries are tolerant or approve of homosexuality, polygamy, dressing provocatively or prostitution; others are not. Some countries employ the death penalty within a prison environment while others do so publicly and still others refuse to consider the possibility of such a punishment. In some nations of Europe, not partaking of a coffee after a meal is tantamount to declaring oneself to be a barbarian, while others do not judge so harshly.
Given the wide diversity of these positions, relativists ask if it can make any sense to suppose that ethics can be everywhere and at all times the same; instead, they vary relative to the circumstances and period in which they arise and are employed. It is important to realise that this does not imply that "anything goes"—a misunderstood methodological point—but rather that values are not independent of the many factors that impact upon their use.
Pluralism is not the same as relativism; it was advocated by Mill and we looked at some of his arguments in the eighth part of this series. Berlin described it as follows:
There are many objective ends, ultimate values, some incompatible with others, pursued by different societies at various times, or by different groups in the same society, by entire classes or churches or races, or by particular individuals within them, any one of which may find itself subject to conflicting claims of uncombinable, yet equally ultimate and objective ends.
Thus it may be that—as with relativism—many different cultures advocate different ethical ideas, but—unlike relativism—they may each see their ideas as objective and it may not be possible to compare them and decide which are true and which are not. In that case, perhaps it is as well that many attempts are being made and that there is a variation in ethical systems? After all, Mill's advice was to allow people to live as they choose in order that we learn by experiment what works and what does not. Pluralism, then, takes note of these circumstances and suggests that we build around them—allowing people to live according to the values they decide upon so long as they do not harm others in so doing. It values tolerance and diversity, whether because they are believed to be important in themselves or because of their consequences.
Hamlet was not convinced of the existence of objective moral guidelines or principles and expressed his doubt thus:
[T]here is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so...
The epistemological claim that we can know nothing of the existence or nature of such principles is called moral skepticism, which sometimes also includes the ontological claim that there can be no such thing. The moral skeptic asks where these guidelines are—in some abstract realm? If so, then:
- how can we know anything about them?
- how are we supposed to interact with something separate from us?
These questions are powerful arguments against objective principles. The first questions the second of the three assumptions Berlin noticed that we looked at before; the other asks about the seemingly strange world that objective ideas presumably inhabit. Another argument points out the wide range of ethical ideas that people have had before and have today in different parts of the world; where do these come from if in fact there is only one true set of rules to be found? A possible answer could be that the correct rules have been distorted by our attempts to try to find them when starting from such diverse positions and within different cultures, but skeptics do not find this very convincing.
There are other difficulties that arise in metaethics that we can consider here. The first is the is/ought problem, according to which we ask how a statement about what we ought to do can ever be logically derived from a statement about what is. For example, suppose we consider the proposition "we ought to do more about people who do not have enough to eat"; in the form we studied in the fourth introduction, this would read:
- P: Some people do not have enough to eat;
- C: Therefore, we ought to do something about it.
The first line (the premise) talks about what is, namely the unfortunate fact that some people go hungry every day; the second (the conclusion) says that we ought to act in some way. We can see the aspect of such arguments that the is/ought problem identifies quite clearly here, because premises are missing:
- P1: Some people do not have enough to eat;
- P2: People not having enough to eat is a bad thing;
- P3: Bad things should be acted upon to make them better;
- C: Therefore, we ought to do something about it.
The second premise is implicit in the first argument, but not stated; the conclusion does not follow without it, because all we are doing is connecting an is statement with an ought without offering any reason or justification. Note that the transition from the second to third premises is also subject to the is/ought problem.
The basic point at issue is that is/ought statements appear to involve unstated ethical ideas that do not make the step from what is to what ought to be any more valid, unless we assume that the ethical ideas are true in the first place—but that is precisely what we are supposed to be showing. In our example, the sheer number of hungry people alters nothing about the logical step involved.
Another example could be the so-called "problem of evil", in which it is asked how a good and all-powerful God could allow the existence of evil, or sometimes a specific case that is supposed to be unproblematic—like the death of a small child. The same is/ought difficulty is at work here:
- P1: God is good and all-powerful;
- P2: Evil exists;
- C: God ought to prevent or remove evil.
The premises talk about what is, while the conclusion addresses what ought to be; however, the implicit premises are missing again: even if we made a long list of every evil thing we could think of, it would still not follow that we can say what God ought to do with presupposing the ethical point we are trying to make.
(There are other aspects to this problem—the supposed logical conflict between the two premises and the question of whether our ethical ideas are close to or a necessary approximation of God's—that we shall consider in the philosophy of religion introduction to come.)
The is/ought problem is a major one for ethics and leads some to think that the derivation of an "ought" from an "is" simply cannot be achieved. Others suggest that facts about our world and about human nature can lead to a resolution, as we shall see below.
Another issue to look at is the naturalistic fallacy, proposed by the philosopher G.E. Moore as a criticism of naturalist or evolutionary approaches to ethics (see below also). He claimed that "good" is a simple property, in that it cannot be defined by reference to anything more simple or broken down further. The attempt to do so is called the naturalistic fallacy.
To see how this is used, suppose we are trying to find a way around the is/ought problem and look at some feature of the natural world to help us—the sociability of groups, say, or cooperation. We could say that since we have evolved to be social animals, an action that promotes or develops cooperation is good while one that does otherwise is bad; unfortunately, according to the naturalistic fallacy, "goodness" is not the same as "sociability" and so the effort fails. Other examples would do likewise. It is easy to see that a way to criticise Moore's thinking would be to address his claim that "good" is a simple property in the first place, and that is what many thinkers have done.
Another metaethical topic that bears considering is the motivation behind an action: according to ethical egoism, all acts are selfish in intent; we may help people, for instance, but ultimately it is to make us feel better. Altruism, on the other hand, suggests that unselfish actions are possible whereby we are solely intent on some benefit for others with no concern for ourselves. Some thinkers argue that all purportedly altruistic deeds are in fact reducible to egoistic motivations, while altruists point to problematic instances like a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades or a mother sacrificing herself for her child.
A last problem to study here concerns moral dilemmas, a situation in which we are faced with two possible courses of action where both seem to violate whatever ethical ideas we may hold. For example, we might know that a woman is very likely to die in childbirth, but that the only other option is to abort the baby; in that case, we would be faced with the unenviable choice of whether to allow the death of the mother or the baby, both of which seem wrong. Alternatively, we might allow a person to believe something about our feelings for them that is actually mistaken, or different; then we could either allow them to continuing believing a lie or tell them and perhaps upset them. This latter is a moral dilemma that comes up often. Lastly, we might be asked to support a war or conflict in which civilian casualties will occur but will remove some kind of purportedly greater evil; do we go along with it, knowing that innocents will perish, or oppose it and allow the evil to persist?
Some situations may of course be more complex and have more than two solutions, but cases like these are common enough. How do we resolve the dilemma, if it can be done at all? One answer could be to say that no such genuine dilemmas exist, since we can always analyse them and find a solution. Along similar lines, if we think that there can only be one correct judgement to be made in all cases of moral difficulties, then one of the options must be true and the other false. The problem with both is that it is not always clear how a dilemma can be resolved and to assert that they always can be means that a methodology for so doing is needed.
On the other hand, we could say that dilemmas can be resolved but not by picking the true course of action; instead, we have to go with making the best of a bad situation and trying to find some kind of accommodation between the two. However, if we deny that all dilemmas can be decisively resolved then we imply that the idea of a moral certainty in action is open to challenge: what of the notion of duty, or obligation, then, if there is no true or correct way we should act in a given circumstance? Some of the possibilities as to how to judge between alternatives when it is not obvious which would be best will now be considered.
We come thus to the systems themselves, or the search for them. In this section we'll look at some of the ideas that have been put forward to guide our conduct and help us determine right or wrong, as well as whether or not we should throw a snowball at a defenceless Hugo.
The Golden Rule
Variations on this famous ethical principle have been proposed at many different times, perhaps most memorably by Jesus; simply put, it states that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Thus, before we decide to launch a blizzard of grit-filled snowballs at Hugo, we ask "would we like Hugo to do the same to us?" If the answer is "yes", then fire away; if "no", then perhaps we should hold off? This example is flawed because the chance to bury Holblingian rhetoric may prove too tempting and lead to the rejection of the golden rule, but we can think of many more: for instance, shall we break into a home and steal the treasured jewellery of the occupants? Probably not, since we would not approve of them doing likewise to us; and so it goes.
Notice, though, that there is a slight conflation of the rule in these instances. To avoid it (and demonstrate the point at issue) we can distinguish between two forms of the rule:
- The positive golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
- The negative golden rule: do not do unto others as you would not have them do to you.
The negative form, then, is what we appeal to when we say "I won't hit Hugo because I wouldn't like him to hit me"—in an alternative universe where this kind of prospect would actually scare us; the positive, on the other hand, is what we employ when we muse "I'm going to be nice to Hugo because I want him to be nice to me".
The golden rule, in either form, is easy to apply and provides a guide by which we can all live without needing to use any special kind of reasoning or understanding, hence part of its attraction. How can we criticise it?
Firstly, the golden rule tells us nothing of how we should treat animals, or babies, or the mentally incapacitated, since none of these can do as we would have them do, or not as we would have them not. Secondly, how do we know if we are not asking too much of others? Thirdly, what if we would like others to treat us in particular ways? Using our fertile imaginations, we could come up with certain practices that we might enjoy but should we then do likewise to others who may not be of a similar disposition? Fourthly, we could find problematic instances: we would like it if a lottery winner gave us half of their winnings, so should we give them the same amount of money, or do we have to win as well first? Perhaps we would like a friend to give us their new car; shall we give them ours? Fifth, what of limitations? Suppose someone is unable to treat us as we expect, but does the best they can all the same? Shall we treat them equally, or do the best we can instead? What of a person trapped in some kind of self-critical circle, wherein they are hard on themselves constantly, and pathologically. Should they turn this on everyone else?
A general complaint at the golden rule is that it is wholly subjective—it depends upon what the subjects wants or would not want. We can try to get around some of these difficulties by saying that we should do as others ought to do to us, but then we rely on other ethical standards to determine what that "ought" implies.
In summary, the golden rule is a useful tool and easy to implement, but we need to be careful not to be too simplistic when adopting it and bear in mind its limitations.
The term "deon" comes from Greek and means duty, so in the general sense a deontological theory is concerned with our duties, obligations and responsibilities to others. In that case, moral conduct consists in following the normative guide provided by those duties; the problem would be in finding out which duties are the correct ones.
By way of an example, it could be that it is our duty to not steal from others, even if we are hungry and cannot afford to eat; indeed, if it were the duty of others to help those in need, we would not starve. A network of such duties could conceivably allow for us all to get along tolerably well, even where we disagree about important matters like who should play at first five-eighth for the All Blacks.
Deontological theories have a long history through thinkers like Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke and Kant to the present day where some people still refer to the notion of "things one just does not do". Part of their appeal lies in the apparent fact that some things seem "self-evident", such as to not go around killing people or hurting children.
Kant offered a slightly different suggestion for how we should act, called the categorical imperative. This was based not on what we might want or desire but a single principle that he thought should apply at any time or place. He gave several versions of it, but the two most important are:
- "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature."
- "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."
The first tells us to examine a possible course of action and say "what would happen if everyone were to do this?" In the case of murder, then, society would probably fall apart in short order; for giving charity, it might become a better place for all. In particular, if we take to insulting Hugo and everyone else was to join in, life might become not worth the effort for him.
The second entreats us never to employ other people as mere tools for our own ends; in short, not to use them. If we make friends with a person, say, not because we value their company or conversation but solely to help our career progression in some way, then we are treating them as something we use to get somewhere and not as a person just like us, deserving of the same dignity.
The main issue to contend with when looking to criticise deontological theories is how we come by knowledge of what our duty is: how do we know we have the true or proper duty, instead of a false one? Such theories are usually in one sense or another foundational—that is, ultimately based on some supposition or other that is at the base of our structure of knowledge. In other words, when we try to justify our ideas we eventually have to stop somewhere; at this point, we have our assumptions upon which to build everything else and hence they cannot be explained further.
The first problem with such trivially obvious propositions, then, is that what is self-evident has differed through the ages and between cultures and individual people today. Who is to say which of the many duties are the right ones to adopt? At one time it was considered a duty to not condone suicide, for instance, but now it is gaining wider acceptance. Another is how to decide between duties that may conflict—if two people are deserving of our charity but we only have enough to help one, which do we choose?
An answer to the second point is often given in terms of intuition; in times of such conflict, we will somehow know or feel which is the stronger and hence act accordingly. Alternatively, or additionally, we must use our judgement of the circumstances and specific factors to help us. Whether this is a convincing reply is another matter.
The are several ethical theories that may be broadly called consequentialist, meaning that the morality or otherwise of an action is determined by its consequences. A division is usually made according to the answer we give to the question "consequences to whom?" and runs as follows; an action is morally sound for:
- Utilitarianism: if the consequences are positive for everyone;
- Ethical Altruism: if the consequences are positive for others;
- Ethical Egoism: if the consequences are positive for the individual.
Clearly the important issues here are what we mean by positive (or a similar term) and how we decide when consequences are to be so described. Part of the attraction of such theories, though, is that they appeal to experience to justify our ethical ideas, instead of something more vague like intuition or duty.
Suppose that one evening we are sat comfortably, enjoying reading a copy of How to make your snowballs hurt people, when we hear a ruckus outside; upon investigation, it turns out that someone is being beaten up by a gang of youths. We could call the police, but by the time they arrive it may be too late—what would be the right thing to do?
If we wade in to help, we may find only that another person takes a pounding; from an ethical egoist point-of-view, then, it may be best to stay out of it (unless we have studied under Seagal). On the other hand, that is not going to help the victim—and we should be concerned at the consequences for him or her if we are ethical altruists, as well as those for the offenders. Even if we get battered in short order, at least it will give the victim a break while perhaps someone else calls the police. As utilitarians, we ought instead to somehow add up all these considerations and decide what to do.
How do we decide, then? According to early formulations of utilitarianism, we take each case individually—act utilitarianism—and measure the pleasure against the pain involved in an act (hence the name); to be charitable, the understanding of these terms should be broad. Later the measure was benefit to society or some similar concept. The problem here was that taking an afternoon nap, for instance, does not contribute as much to society as a few hours of voluntary work in the local community—hence the nap is wrong. This does not seem to make much sense to the well-fed post-Christmas armchair pilot. An alternative is rule utilitarianism: this time we consider whether the implementation of an action as a rule would be beneficial to society. Killing someone, for example, would be catastrophic for society if turned into a rule.
There are several criticisms we can make of consequentialist ideas, or utilitarianism in particular. A typical example of a problematic issue is slavery: if a small proportion of the population was used to support the majority, perhaps a great benefit could accrue to society overall as a result? However, slavery still seems wrong to many people; act utilitarianism appears to fail. Even as a rule we could possibly have two separate rules for slaves and non-slaves. Another similar point concerns a situation in which the current circumstances are unfair or undesirable but no change is proposed; in that case, a bad system could perpetuate. Rule utilitarianism does not necessarily help us because there may be two or more possible rules that seem equally good; how are we to choose between them if their consequences do not differ in any significant way? Consequentialism is also said to fall victim to the naturalistic fallacy.
There are other aspects to attack but perhaps the most important and difficult to deal with is the epistemological question: how do we know what the consequences are or will be? Usually we can make an educated guess, considering as many factors as possible, but everyone is aware of guesses that missed the mark or were completely wrong—like the weather forecasts. Is a best approximation enough to allow an action or rule that may be wrong when its consequences have played out? What about those affected while this process is ongoing?
In recent times a new perspective has been added to consequentialist ideas in the form of cost-benefit analysis and consists in part in applying some economic ideas to ethical and political actions by weighing the perceived benefit of an action or policy against its expected costs. This has some obvious quantitative attraction but has drawn criticism insofar as such a method seems to ignore the kinds of decisions made by people for ethical reasons. The building of a mall, say, may be subject to such an analysis but does not appear to many people to address their valuation of the area more as open fields or with local shops. No matter how clear the benefit in such a situation may be, the people in a community may still claim that they prefer to buy their newspaper from the same store, the proprietor of which they may have known for very many years. How do we judge this on the basis of consequences?
Indeed, another sense in which consequentialism seems to just not feel right to many people is the way in which it operates: do we really judge actions by their results? Sometimes, perhaps, but we also say beforehand what we think. For example, if someone talks of the consequences of hurting a child and on that basis calls it wrong, there appears to be something strange about even considering the matter in this way; that is, it does not take into account the psychological process going on when someone says "hurting children is wrong". Consider, for instance, how we would react to someone offering the proposition "hurting children is wrong because the consequences of this act as a rule for society would be undesirable". It may be correct, but it somehow misses the point entirely.
Virtue ethics dates back to Aristotle and beyond, as we saw above. Instead of defining ethics by rules that ought to govern our conduct, virtue theorists prefer to advocate the learning and development of character habits. The Greeks noted that a kind of middle way was possible; a self-respecting man, for example, could become vain if he had too high an opinion of himself, just as he could become desperate if he lacked the trait completely. The same could apply to prudence in financial matters, where too much could lead to living like a pauper in the midst of riches while too little could result in genuine poverty.
Although this seems to reflect the way we often think or talk about ethical conduct, there are a number of shortcomings. Firstly, habits of character or admirable traits do not tell us how to deal with moral dilemmas or those instances of applied ethics that come up regularly, like abortion or the death penalty. It is unclear how we are to deal with lapses in conduct; suppose a normally brave soldier is cowardly once—how should we judge this? What, also, of specific acts like the murder of a child? Should we pass over a temporary period of failure in the hope that a person's conduct will improve in the long run? Is there any sense in saying we have found the true habits of character that should be advocated, or do they differ and depend on circumstances? Lastly, what of the wide variety of cultures and the different modes of conduct they each value?
Some of the insights gained from evolutionary theory have led to the consideration of ethics from this perspective, with E.O. Wilson coining the term "socio-biology" for the "study of the biological basis of social behaviour". If we use our intellect to determine ethical conduct and this intellect (and its physical seat in the hypothalamus and limbic system, as Wilson notes) has evolved, then it makes sense to ask what this insight can tells us about our ideas of right and wrong.
Take, as a standard example, a society in which all the individuals are selfish and concerned only with themselves. It seems fair to say that such a society would not last long unless some kind of cooperation developed. In that case, notions like helping others, honesty and of course cooperation would be likely to be selected while the converses would not; that is, these traits would have a biological explanation.
This means that the question "why do we behave ethically" can be answered by saying that we have evolved to be that way. The other—perhaps more important—matter of what we mean by good is not addressed, though, but it may not necessarily need to be. If we ask "is it right to hurt people for no reason?", we could consider the question in evolutionary terms and reply that we have, say, evolved to in general not do so; that tells us that we are going to be inclined to think—and act—as though it is not, regardless of some ultimate answer to the question. It could be, then, that the issue is not "what is good?" but rather "why do we act as we do?"
The late John Rawls is considered by some to be the most important political thinker of the last century, and with good reason—not least his Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. His ideas have a bearing on our studies here because the fount of all his work is the notion of justice as fairness, which he explains thus:
[F]irst, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone's advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.
The first point says, in part, that if anyone is going to be free, they can only be so free as everyone else may also be—fairness; the second remarks that if there are going to be inequalities then we must expect something good to come of them eventually that is of benefit to everyone—fairness, again.
How, then, are we to determine what is fair? Rawls proposed a methodology for so doing that he called the veil of ignorance, meaning the attempt to investigate a possible action as if we knew nothing of our own or others' circumstances. Take, for example, the idea that a minority of people should work as slaves for the majority; for simplicity, suppose there are three of us—living on a desert island, perhaps—and one will be the slave. Under the veil of ignorance we do not include any information we might have to hand, such as which one of us is going to be the slave; if we knew that, we could easily be swayed in our decision by reflecting on the consequences for us personally. Thus, out of the three of us, one will be a slave. This does not seem fair at all—it could be us, for no reason other than picking the short straw.
Clearly we do have personal biases and other information to help us decide such things, and to help us deal with these Rawls offered what he called the reflective equilibrium; that is:
how well the view as a whole articulates our more firm considered convictions of political justice, at all levels of generality, after due examination, once all adjustments and revisions that seem compelling have been made.
This means that we study an idea under the veil of ignorance to try to understand what the fair response should be, before opening it to further arguments and comparing it with what we already think about justice. After this process, we have reached a kind of balance or equilibrium, but we nevertheless continue to reflect on it and use whatever new information or circumstances comes along. Hence, we have a constructivist ethical approach—one that is built up and, like a house, open to adjustment while still remaining grounded in the concept of fairness.
Rawls expanded on this outline at great length but it will be useful for us to consider an example here of how we can apply this basic insight. Suppose that we look at restricting the freedom of speech: under the veil of ignorance, it could be proposed that some of us not be allowed to speak as we choose while others are, even if they use that freedom to babble about philosophy instead of Frisbee. This hardly seems fair, and we can see no reason as yet why this unfair application would result in benefit for all somewhere down the line, nor why the liberty to speak as we choose should not be extended to all.
Now we reconsider this decision in the light of other information. Should freedom of speech be unrestricted? Apparently not, given the strong arguments to the contrary that are available elsewhere—so the "level of generality" is very much an issue. What have we learned from previous times when freedom of speech was or was not restricted? And so on. We eventually arrive at a decision that represents a balancing of all available factors but which acknowledges that things may yet change and have to be looked at again.
Earlier we said that applied ethics is the study of those issues we see every day with the application (hence the name) of the ideas we have looked at above. The key feature of an applied ethics problem is that it concerns something controversial and undecided; we do not, for instance, look at whether killing children is good because everyone agrees that it is not, regardless of how they come to it.
Topics to consider
By listing some of the ethical issues recently or still under debate, we can understand the importance of this area of philosophy and why all the techniques we have seen to date in our series have a bearing on our everyday lives. Consider:
- Should we permit stem cell research?
- Should we allow abortion (whether at all or at different times)?
- Should we keep information confidential?
- Should we tell the truth to worried relatives or dying patients?
- Should parents be allowed to decide what education their children receive?
- Should religious beliefs overrule doctors when choosing treatment?
- Should we stop people from committing suicide if we can, or discourage it?
- Should we allow or support assisted suicide?
- Should we allow animal research?
- Should we allow capital punishment?
- Should we support marriage as an institution?
- Should people be monogamous?
- Should we allow gun ownership?
- Should we act pre-emptively against potential criminals?
This is just a sample of the matters we can see in the news or hear about while queuing in the post office and wondering about the morality of bending someone's ear when they only want a stamp or two.
We can use the advice we saw in our second and eighth essays when approaching ethical issues, as well as the understanding of terms gained throughout the series so far. In particular, if someone proposes an argument for or against some action and we find it to be flawed, we may still be able to improve it or learn something from it. We can now finish our discussion by looking at an example of a way we could approach an issue—not the only way, though.
Consider the matter of interaction on the internet. Since many people have had access to the wide and diverse community provided by internet resources, we have had to adjust to a new way of dealing with others. How should we behave towards those we meet online?
There are probably as many possibilities as there are people, but we could look at some of them. For example, we could behave:
- As we would do in person.
- With greater care, since we cannot use body language or emphasis to clarify what we mean.
- However we choose, thanks to the anonymity.
And so on. In these and other cases, we could ask why we ought to act in one way and not another. Instead of trying to see the issue from one perspective only, we can use those we studied above and see if we can arrive at any kind of conclusion as a result. Note that we assume some kind of idea about how to treat people in person and are asking how to extend it (or if we should) to interactions on the internet.
Take first a duty-based approach: we have a responsibility to behave in a certain way towards others, whether it be due to a religious moral code, the categorical imperative or a stiff-upper-lipped injunction as to what a gentleman should or should not do; should it be extended? Suppose we say no; in that case, an injunction to act in the specified manner no longer holds simply because of the distance between people. After all, it could be that the person at the other end of the connection is halfway around the world, but they could be in our town, or in the next room. Does our duty to them alter as they move further away? That seems like a difficult claim to justify.
Now suppose we say yes; are the duties we have magnified by the additional difficulties we face or do they remain the same? The latter appears to be a little simplistic, since we rely on many additional levels in our everyday interactions other than what we write. Indeed, we could think of it as akin to composing a letter to someone; we have to bear in mind how our words may be interpreted and be more careful than we would if speaking to them—especially if we are trying to make something clear or get across some important information (a dear John letter, perhaps).
Secondly, we could adopt a consequentialist approach: what would be the result of each possibility? In this case, it very much depends on the goal we are aiming at and which form of consequentialism we employ. If we want to use the anonymity we are afforded to be free of some of the ethical constraints we might otherwise face, we have to consider whether what follows from this would be desirable for us, for others, and for society as a whole. The same would apply to the alternatives.
A virtue perspective would follow closely the remarks we made for duty theories. If there are certain habits of character that are to be followed or encouraged, then the distance between people hardly seems like a good reason to abandon them. We do not necessarily know how to behave at particular moments, but the general advice would apply for the same reasons as before.
The other areas we studied above can also help us here; indeed, the golden rule in both its forms would seem to be excellent advice and we would do well to bear in mind that different cultures have different ideas about how we should act. As a result of these considerations, we can come to a tentative conclusion about how we ought to act based on each of the methods. All of them may be open to further criticism and may change if and when other information comes to hand. Rather than choose between normative codes, though, we can see that looking at a problem from all angles (or as many as we can manage) is a useful way to approach applied ethics.
This is a basic discussion and can be made a lot deeper with more thought and application. Already there are many such studies available (on the internet, no less) that try to understand how ethics apply to new situations like this one that arise as our world changes. The questions we ask about how to relate to one another in circumstances that are rarely—if ever—the same ensure that this aspect of philosophy will remain relevant to us all.
Dialogue the Eighth
The Scene: Trystyn and Anna are walking home, having left Steven and Jennifer. They appear to be proceeding at leisure, not taking the shortest route.
Anna: How do you think Steven is doing?
Trystyn: Not so good.
Anna: Why not? They seemed to be getting on well.
Trystyn: Perhaps some other time, but she's already involved.
Anna: Oh. (An uncomfortable pause.) Does he know?
Trystyn: I don't think so.
Anna: And you didn't tell him?
Trystyn: (Quietly...) No. (Another pause.)
Anna: Why not? (She doesn't sound very happy.)
Trystyn: I guess I didn't think of it.
Anna: Did you think he'd figure out for himself eventually?
Trystyn: I thought she'd tell him.
Anna: When? You could see he liked her. It's a bit late to leave it until he makes a move and gets shot down. You knew it wasn't possible but said nothing.
It was pretty obvious what would happen and you could have prevented it. That's wrong, whichever way you look at it.
Trystyn: What ways are there? He's not a fool; I can't hold his hand. I didn't tell him how to feel and I didn't even introduce them.
Anna: Nonsense. You had plenty of opportunities to have a quiet word.
Trystyn: I guess so.
Anna: There's no guessing about it. The consequences of allowing him to believe he had a chance were pretty clear at the outset. You wouldn't want him to do the same to you, so why do it to him? Don't you think you have some kind of duty to your friends to keep them from being upset if you can? What if everyone acted this way?
Trystyn: I had other things on my mind.
Anna: What difference does that make? Questions of how to treat people don't come along at convenient times so that you