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Introduction to Ethics

Ethics (or moral philosophy) is crucially important because it is devoted to answering questions like these:

“What is best?”
“What is the good life?”
“How should I live?”
“How should I behave towards other people?”
“What is the purpose of life?”

These are questions about what makes things valuable; they were the questions which drew me to philosophy in the first place. As you can probably see from this list, the subject holds plenty of interest even for people with no marked tendency to behave well!

Meta-Ethics and Practical Ethics

Like so many subjects (maths, physics, waterskiing), moral philosophy can be divided into a theoretical side (‘meta-ethics’) and a practical side. The back-room boys and girls of moral philosophy examine the ultimate reasons for doing things, search for fundamental values, and try to understand the language and the logic of moral claims. Practical ethics (or applied ethics, as it is also called), looks at what we should do when confronted by specific moral problems. Its practitioners are the glory merchants who get invited onto government commissions to examine the rights and wrongs of things like euthanasia, public conduct and experimentation on human embryos. Applied ethics also covers questions of war, justice, human rights and animal rights. It is perhaps the area of philosophy with most to say about real life.

Goals and Duties

There are numerous theories of ethics. One basic distinction is between teleological (goalbased) and deontological (duty-based) systems of ethics. The word teleological comes from the telos, a marker post that ancient Greek charioteers used to gallop towards in their races. A teleological system of ethics specifies a certain goal which is seen as a Good Thing (such as increasing the amount of happiness in the world, or achieving the workers’ revolution, or whatever). It then defines good actions as ones which bring the achievement of that goal closer, while bad actions are the opposite. A teleologist is the sort of person most likely to say that “the end justifies the means.” Deontological systems of ethics are quite different. There, the idea is that there are simply certain things you have a moral duty to do (telling the truth, for instance) and other things which you should not do, regardless of the long-term consequences.

The difference between the two positions is shown by this often-used and all-too-realistic example. You drive into a small South American village, where you discover that the local army chief and his men have lined up ten of the inhabitants in the main square. Greeting you, the gallant soldier explains that some of the peasants may possibly have been supporting terrorists and that he is about to have them all shot just in case. However, he says with an evil grin, in honour of your visit he is prepared to give you the privilege of personally shooting one of the ten, selected at random. If you do, he will let the others go. If you don’t, you can leave in peace but all the peasants will die. Many teleological theories would require you to go ahead and shoot one of the peasants – you will save nine lives and the overall outcome is therefore much better than if you just walk away. Most deontologists, however, would say that you should refuse to co-operate, as you have an absolute duty not to kill innocent people, whatever the circumstances.

Some Popular Ethical Theories

Consequentialism: The general term for any teleological system of ethics. By far the best-known example is Utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism: “Act so as to create the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.” There are numerous variations on this simple theme. Utilitarianism has been influential for over two hundred years. Big names include Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill

Kantian ethics Immanuel Kant was the inventor of the famous Categorical Imperative: “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a universal law.” He also said that you should treat other people as ends in themselves, and not merely as tools for you to use to achieve your own goals. As it is based on concepts of duty, Kantian ethics is a prime example of a deontologial theory.

Intuitionism: Intuitionists say that we are born with a natural sense of what is right and wrong. All that moral philosophers need to do is to make our moral intuitions explicit and sort out the problems of what to do when different intuitions urge us to conflicting courses of action. One of the leading Intuitionists this century was GE Moore.

Emotivism: this is the view that moral judgements express our approval or disapproval of something, rather than saying anything about the moral properties of that object. So if I say “Drunkenness is a sin!”, all I am doing is expressing the emotion of being repelled by drunken behaviour. Some emotivists say this is just as it should be, and that the only sensible ethical systems are firmly based on an examination of what people really want – on the satisfaction of their emotional preferences. The best known emotivist was AJ (Freddy) Ayer.

Libertarianism: Do whatever you like as long as you don’t hurt anyone else in the process. A leading exponent of this view is the American philosopher Robert Nozick.

Christian ethics “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself”. Nietzsche argued that most people (even most atheists) base their behaviour on Judaeo-Christian ethics. The influence of Christianity has been so great for so long that its moral precepts are part of the air we breath.

Relativism: The view that all ethical systems are somehow equally valid, so that a person’s actions can only be judged relative to their particular culture or ethical system.

The Golden Rule Do as you would be done by. This rule underlies the moral systems of nearly all the main religions, as well as Kantian ethics.

Objective versus subjective ethics

Do moral rules or moral values exist separately from human beings? Are they somehow built into the structure of the universe? If so, they are said to be ‘objective’, and morality is something we can discover, just as we can discover the laws of physics. However, if moral values only exist in our heads, we say that they are ‘subjective’. This would help explain why values vary from society to society. But, the objectivist would reply, some moral values are so widely shared as to be almost universal.

Some Controversies in Ethics

(a) The Is-Ought problem (see box about Hume’s Law on page 22). (b) The Problem of the Amoralist. The amoralist is someone who recognises the validity of moral judgements on an intellectual level, but who is utterly unmoved by them emotionally. This poses a bit of a problem for emotivists, who say that moral judgements are inseparable from emotional attitudes. However, they usually retort, “Find us a real live amoralist and then we’ll worry about it”. (c) Moral Luck. Suppose you fire a gun at a crowd. If the bullet kills someone, then you are responsible, and are guilty of manslaughter at the very least. If by some lucky freak of fate the bullet goes right through the crowd without hitting anyone, then all you are guilty of is criminal negligence. But your actions and intentions were exactly the same in both cases – surely you must be as guilty in the second case as in the first? If you aren’t, that must be down to ‘moral luck’. Different theories of ethics place different relative importance on intentions and outcomes.

Continental versus Anglo-Saxon moral philosophy in the 20th Century

See the articles by Peter Lloyd and Innes Crellin starting on the next page!

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