Ethics or "Know thyself"

Ethics websitesEthics LinkingAreas of KnowingEthics online

How should we live?  What is right behavior?  Does an ethical life bring personal happiness?

Ethics Overview

Definitions: Ethics (from Greek ethikos) is one of four branches of philosophy, the others being metaphysics (What is the nature of existence and being?), epistemology (what can we know and how do we know it?)  and finally logic. The study of ethics is undertaken in an attempt to clarify values, to define, that which is right from that which is wrong, and to guide us in how we should behave. 

 What is the difference between ethics (what is) and morality (what ought to be)?

Morality and ethics are very closely related. Morality tends to be described as a spiritual aspect: the system of rules for the superego. Ethics, on the other hand, is the real life execution of such ideals and virtues. Others would argue that ethics refers only to professional codified behavior while morality applies to life outside the workplace.  Some examples of professional behaviors or codes that raise epistemological problems of knowing are as follows:

Political Science:  how should we allocate power and to what end?

Anthropology:     how should we evaluate one culture juxtaposed against another? 

Economics:    how should we distribute scarce resources? How should land be distributed?

Law:          how and when should we punish or show mercy? What should be the most fundamental rights of man?

Psychology:  how do we define, treat, and understand behaviors different from the norm?

Biology:  what should be the proper interrelationship between technical innovations in biology and medicine, law, politics, and religion?

Education:  who should be educated to what extent and to what end?

Religion:  how should we behave when the dogmas of one religion contradict another? What should be the proper relationship between church and state?

Press:  In meeting the public’s right to know, to what limitations or freedoms should the press be subject?  Should they  be compelled to reveal their sources?

 Science:   what should be (if any) the boundaries of science?

Sociology:  How should the individual interact with the group? What should be the parameters (if any) of free will in any given society? Should the government exercise control over abortion or euthanasia? Do the rich have a responsibility to the poor?

Athletics:  What behaviors are proper or sportsmanlike? What does it mean to compete fairly?

Environment:  Do we have a responsibility to protect the environment? What if that protection can only come to positive fruition in the distant future but interferes with the full enjoyment of the “good life” here and now?

Business:  What should be the proper relationship between employer and worker?  What are the responsibilities of fair and ethical action in the local and world markets? Do corporations have a moral responsibility to do no harm even if that threatens their livelihood or existence 

Sexual Politics:  Is there a right or wrong sexuality?  What is the proper relationship between law and the individual when it comes to sexual choice and/or private practices amongst consenting adults? Who should be allowed to marry?

Technology:  Should there be fair and ethical use policies established for the internet? Who should have access and should it be free or censored? Should TV programming be subject to public decency and relevancy oversights?

Medicine:  Who should have access to medical treatment? Is it ethical to refuse treatment to someone without insurance?   Should experimental drugs and treatments be allowed? To what extent should physicians and hospitals be held responsible when mishap or death occurs?  Should a doctor or  patient ever be allowed to terminate life when pain and the quality of life are greatly diminished? Should pharmaceutical companies produce low cost medication to the poor when it is a life-or-death issue?

 ArtShould art be morally uplifting or does it have nothing to do with morality? When does art become pornography or violence?  Should it ever be censored?

Three Moral Theories:

             1.  Consequences:   Utilitarianism - John Stuart Mill.  Do the most good for the most people.

             2.  Duty:  Deontological theories - Immanuel Kant.

                            It is possible for an act to be morally right even if it doesn’t produce the greatest balance of good or evil. 

                            i.e. According to Kant, in his categorical imperative, one should never lie under any circumstance.

Ross: There are times when to respect the autonomy of others one must lie

Locke:  You have a right to tell the truth but also a right to privacy.

             3.  Virtue:  Teleological theories – Aristotle. virtue ethics  ethical systems that focus primarily on what sort of person one should be.

Questions to Consider:

  •   What is the relationship between ethics and happiness?

  •   Can morality be relative (over time, culture, or situation) or must it be absolute?

  •   Can morality be taught?

  •   How do we (or can we) “test” for the rightness or wrongness of an action in an empirical, scientific manner?

  •   Are intelligent people more moral than unintelligent people?


Cloud Callout: The world is just.
                                                           “After two thousand years of Mass

                                                            We’ve got as far as poison gas”  

Cloud Callout: There is some justice in the world
                       Thomas Hardy 1924



Cloud Callout: There is no justice in the world !




General Introduction to Ethics: What does it Matter ? 

What is the Point of gaining Moral Knowledge?

Free will:

We make choices about what we do. To make a choice between two morally different courses of action we must be capable of thinking good thoughts and bad thoughts and imagining what their outcomes would be. We, as humans, are not robots or saints. If there is a "saint," it is one who has bad thoughts but rejects them and acts on "good" ones. The moral sense seems to be (as far as we know) exclusively human. Those figures from the pages of crime or history whom we judge as lacking any moral sense are often described as inhuman.

It is debatable whether animals have formal courts or act on remorse or shame. Perhaps they have not risen to that level of consciousness or conscience. Perhaps they are beyond that.

Two Moral senses, thought and action:

There are thoughts and desires we hold in our heads. Thus, I might believe giving money to a charity is a good thing. The act of actually giving money however is different. Belief in the first sense does not automatically mean I will act on that belief. To many people our moral sense consists of what we do rather than what we think we would do. We are honest, kind, and generous because we know such things are right; therefore, we do not steal, lie, cheat, bully, or boast because we know such things are wrong.

From where does our moral sense originate?

Language underpins all our thought processes including those involved in our moral senses. If you agree with this, you must logically ask, " What do we mean when we say something is good?" Frequently this word contains emotional connotations, which would suggest that moral judgment stems in part from intuition and desire. Good deeds may be motivated by either self-interest or sympathy, two forces which may benefit ourselves or others and sometimes both. Sympathy for others lies at the foundation of providing a strong public moral code and a strong society.

The problem with this account is that it diminishes the role of reason to a position that is subservient to emotions. Further, do we really have an inborn sympathy for others? If we do, do we all have the same amount? Logically, can we be held responsible if we have been born with only a marginal propensity towards moral action and behave badly most of the time?

In some cases emotion and reason merge. It would make no sense to give to charity unless within your reason you deemed it beneficial to all of society or to that person. Even when you question the ultimate end use of your money, you still might hold to a right action, which applies to everyone, irrespective of circumstances. Your reason teaches you to respect (emotion) the reasoning and emotions of others. What would be the consequences on this planet if we did not?

Dilemmas: There does not always exist such a neat parallel. If I unfairly punish a student in the certain knowledge that I will improve life generally this does not stop me from feeling bad about being unfair. This is unlike reasoning where a false (or inadequate) solution is easily, carelessly, discounted.

Consider the case of Hamlet.

Moral Truth

Can there be more than one set of moral truths? There are values that are true only for our culture. If we accept this idea we have no right to judge others. Thus, being outraged against slave-torturers of adolescents in Modern Africa or of witch-burners in Old Salem is inappropriate. The problem with such an argument is that it is illogical.

Is there something which is universally right or wrong, irrespective of time, culture, or circumstance?

The aim of Moral Knowledge

What is the point in behaving well? A sense of honor; pleasure, fulfillment of the will, fitness with reason are the consequences of good action. Bad action brings about shame, pain, self-abasement, and contradiction of reason. The one aim of behaving well that has derived the most support is the aim of happiness. Happiness is an end in itself. There are those who argue that life is all its richness is only achieved through fulfillment of the will and through striving for excellence through conflict. This is not without interest. It is your choice and a very important one.

Still confused? Try the following tests before deciding on action:

Sources of Individual Moral Choice and Action

Authority: "It’s against the rules." Superiors in intellect , strength, fire-power, money, know what is best. You must decide if their judgment is superior or simply convenient.

"My Holy Book says it is wrong" Now a moral code comes from a supernatural power. The problem comes when you differ with someone from another faith.

Personal Knowledge: "I know it is wrong." We are appealing to our intuitive self and our emotions. What if the person feels that a bad action is good?

Personal Reaction: "It does not please me when I think of it and so it is wrong." This seems rational, but again what if the person derives pleasure from the pain of others?

Knowledge from the Majority: "Most people agree that it is wrong." Fact or opinion?

This may have withstood the test of time but it may also be sheep mentality and lazy thinking.

Self-interest: "How would you like it if this were done to you?" One hopes that human beings are capable of this, but if the aim of life is excellence and excellence means exerting ones will, then this is problematic.

Consider the consequences: We don’t always suffer the consequences immediately or perceptibly.