To avoid any evil, to seek the good, to keep the mind pure: this is the essence of the Buddha's teaching. (The Way of Practice)

For the student, few areas of the TOK programme are concerned with such immediate and personal matters as ethics, perhaps because of the immediate consequences in everyday life. Ethics involves a discussion of the distinctions between right and wrong, the justification of moral judgements, the implications of moral actions for the individual and the group, and the relationship between concepts in ethics and politics. While the framework for discussion should be epistemological questions and what the bases are for values, the teacher is encouraged to apply theoretical questions to practical examples of interest to students, thus combining abstract argument and personal experience, and providing a structure for student reflection on possible links between ethics and responsible action.

Definition of Ethics

  • What characterizes a moral judgement? In what ways might a moral judgement differ from other judgements?
  • Does morality necessarily involve action, or can it involve thoughts and attitudes alone, and be solely meditative?
  • What is the difference between 'morality' and 'ethics'? Is ethics concerned primarily with what is or what ought to be?

Ethics: Methods of Gaining Knowledge and Knowledge Claims

  • What is the source of the sense of 'right' and 'wrong'? For moral beliefs, can one distinguish between the source and the justification, or are the two the same?
  • What are the justifications for, and implications of, claiming that there are absolute standards for morality, or that the standards of morality can be set only by society, or that the standards of morality can be set only by the individual? Are the three positions mutually exclusive?
  • How does the method of ethics compare with the methods in other Areas of Knowledge? Is the method in ethics closer to the axioms and reasoning of mathematics, or is it closer to the evidence and theory of the sciences? To what extent is argument a method?
  • How, if at all, is it possible to know who is right in judging ethical issues? If moral decisions are not clear, or if moral issues are controversial, does it follow that there is no such justifiable concept as right or wrong? How much ambiguity is tolerable in ethics for it still to be called 'knowledge'? How might this question also be applicable to other Areas of Knowledge?

Ethics and Values

  • Does living a moral life matter?
  • In what ways might justifications for moral beliefs be influenced by views on human nature whether humans are by nature good, evil, or amoral?
  • Can one reasonably separate values in ethics from the definition of the discipline, its methods and its knowledge claims? How does it compare in this regard with other Areas of Knowledge?
  • What may be meant by 'If you travel with fraud you reach your destination, but are unable to return'? (Ghanaian proverb)
  • What may be meant by 'He who wears his morality as a robe is better off naked'? (Kahlil Gibran)

Ethics and Technology

  • What is the purpose of the Ethical and Fair Use policies related to the Internet, that are commonly adopted by schools and other institutions?
  • What ethical issues are raised by highly skilled Internet users breaking into private and public computer systems?

Ethics and Knowledge Perspectives

  • To what extent does the state of a person's knowledge play a part in deciding whether an act is right or wrong? Under what conditions would it be legitimate for a person to plead ignorance? Are people responsible for finding out the relevant facts as much as possible?
  • What knowledge of morality may be gained by focusing attention on the individual making moral judgements? Is freedom of choice a necessary condition for making moral judgements? Should the person's intentions be the criterion for deciding whether an action is right or wrong? Are people always aware of their real intentions or motives?
  • What knowledge of morality may be gained by focusing attention on the features of the moral judgement or act itself? Are some thoughts or actions intrinsically 'right' or 'wrong', independent of circumstances? Is it possible to establish firm principles to determine moral action? If so, on what basis? On the basis of reason? Divine revelation? Is it possible to rank principles in order of importance? What are 'human rights' and on what basis do they rest?
  • What knowledge of morality may be gained by focusing attention on the consequences of the thoughts or actions? Is an effect on others a necessary condition for a judgement to be a moral judgement? To what extent can consequences be predicted and judged as to which consequences are better and which are worse? Can consequences be quantified or weighed scientifically? Which matters more, the consequences for individuals or the consequences for the group? Are there spiritual consequences to be taken into account?
  • What knowledge of morality may be gained by focusing attention on the social, cultural or historical context of the moral judgement? Is a shared moral code a necessity for a harmonious society? To what extent can acceptance of dissent be a feature of a shared moral code? To what extent do moral values differ, depending on the society or the historical time? For example, can a practice such as slavery be right in one era or region and wrong in another? Can the practices of one society be judged with any validity by applying the values of another generation or another culture? Do some values seem to be universal, or nearly so?
  • How may moral dilemmas arise? Is it possible for an individual to act in a morally justifiable way within a context of restricted choice, oppression, or corruption? To what extent may the circumstances of people's lives excuse actions which might be condemned by society's moral principles? Can respect for a culture, in harmony with principles of tolerance and openness, be reconciled with a condemnation of specific practices within that culture, on the basis of other principles?
  • Is there a relationship between ethics and the Creativity, Action, Service programme within the Diploma programme? Is service to others, in whatever form, a moral obligation? If so, on what might the obligation be based? If not, why not?
  • Are there ethical obligations for humanity to treat the natural environment in a certain way? Are there constraints? If so, are the obligations and constraints based solely on a concern for the indirect effects on humanity, or are there other issues and principles involved?
  • Do established values change in the face of new knowledge?
  • Should scientific research be subject to ethical principles, or is the pursuit of scientific knowledge intrinsically worthwhile?
  • Does the possession of knowledge carry an ethical responsibility?
  • Is there knowledge which a person or a society has a responsibility to acquire, or not to acquire?
  • When confronted by an unjust situation, is a person obliged to act? If the unjust situation is in the context of friendship or family, would this make a difference? Should this make a difference? Are there ethical constraints on the actions which a person should take to 'right a wrong'?

Ethics and Politics

  • Is politics primarily concerned with what is or what ought to be? Is it a study of the workings of power, with possible attendant corruption, or is it a study of ethical concepts of how people ought to live together in a society?
  • Are the following ideas political, ethical, or both: justice, rights, social responsibility, equality, and freedom? Is the concept of property an ethical idea? Is the concept of society an ethical idea?
  • To what extent are political systems such as autocracy, democracy, theocracy and communism, in their ideal forms, allied with ethical ideas of the right way for people to live in a society? To what extent might each system embody different concepts of justice and social responsibility?
  • Does politics affect the ethics of a society?
  • Is there an obligation on an individual to be politically aware, or even politically active? Conversely, is there an obligation on an individual to refrain from political action? Can one avoid being affected by politics?
  • How should the language of political debate be analysed and judged? Is there a greater need for analysis in politics than in other Areas of Knowledge?
  • What is the influence of politics on other Areas of Knowledge, such as the natural and human sciences, history, and the arts? What, conversely, might be the influence of these other Areas of Knowledge on politics?
  • When the moral codes of individual nations conflict, can criteria be developed for an international morality which transcends them? What are the justifications for, and functions of, such ethical and political documents as the Geneva Conventions for warfare or the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights?