Philosophy — Ethics


Introduction to Ethics

We are all told, and we (probably) all believe, that there are some things we ought to do and others that we ought not. Ethics is an examination of these ‘oughts’ or norms of behaviour. What it seeks to provide are justifications for the ‘oughts’ that we use to guide us through life. To help you appreciate that this justification can have a range from the obvious to the very difficult, consider the following statements concerning diet:

Some terms

Before going further, it is a good idea to try to get clear a few of the terms used in this area of philosophy, particularly morals and ethics. Broadly speaking, ethics relates to the theory of what is right and wrong, morals with the practice. (Though be warned that these are often interchanged in everyday usage and sometimes even by philosophers.) Thus, we have medical ethics (but not ‘medical morals’) which seeks to guide doctors and, for instance, moral medical practices (such as, perhaps, the alleviation of pain) or immoral ones (perhaps circumcision without consent) which doctors might actually carry out. From this distinction you can see why we have moral philosophy (and not ‘ethical philosophy’) since it is the practice of reflecting on morality. Moral acts are ones which accord with an ethical theory, immoral ones go against such theories. Amoral acts have no moral dimension. Thus, the act of a tiny baby dropping its rattle out of the pram is amoral but smacking the baby for it might be seen as moral or immoral depending on the ethical principle appealed to.

Principles for Moral Actions — Normative Ethics

Jumping in at the deep end, the first thing to consider is whether ethical principles even exist.

Of course, it seems like they exist – we all seem to behave as if there is a set of guiding principles to help us decide what is the right thing to do in a certain situation. But what are we to say to the determinist who maintains that all our reactions are out of ‘our’ control, that we are incapable of making real choices about how we behave? And what are we to say to the solipsist who maintains that their mind is the only real thing in the world? If there is nothing else besides this solipsist’s mind, then there is nothing to judge it against. So, a solipsist would not have ‘standards of behaviour’ or ethical principles at all: they would not exist.

Fortunately, neither of these positions, though possible, is philosophically acceptable. Determinism because it disallows reasoning to a conclusion which, arguably, is at the heart of philosophy [see more on this in the section on egoism]; solipsism for its sheer implausibility as a theory (notwithstanding its logical impregnability).

So, having acknowledged the existence of ethical principles as an acceptable standpoint, the next big question is this: are our ethical principles universal or merely relative? In other words, is something like ‘you ought not to murder’ always going to be a principle or might it only be a principle for one individual, or one culture, or at one particular time? We’ll look at the latter idea first since it is currently quite a popular position to adopt.

Ethical Relativism

Basically, the idea here is that there is no single set of ethical principles which apply universally. Rather, we make up ethical principles to suit ourselves: there is nothing to say which set of principles is ‘better’ than any other.

This position has a dual attraction. Firstly (and perhaps less worthily) it allows us quickly and easily – and painlessly – to arrive at an ethical standpoint on an issue. Taking slavery as an example we can now say that it is wrong to enslave people in Britain; that it was right for the Ancient Greeks to enslave people; that it is right for certain Amazonian tribes to enslave people. What makes slavery right or wrong is whether it fits with the ethical principles of the culture at the time. This can be quite a comfort: no-one can criticize our own ethical principles from outside our culture. And, of course, neither can we criticize other cultures which, for example, allow the old to starve to death or routinely mutilate the genitalia of girls. This saves us a lot of worrying.

Secondly (more worthily) it probably stems from the principle of toleration: who are we to praise or condemn other groups of people for what they do? Ethical relativism can be seen as part of this ‘live and let live’ attitude.

Though attractive – and popular – ethical relativism is not viewed highly by moral philosophers. One reason for this is that it does not allow us to condemn actions which, one would guess, most people would want (even ought?) to condemn. Thus, ethical relativism insists we must maintain a neutral stance over the Third Reich’s Final Solution (elimination of the Jewish people); Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds; the practice of crushing and binding infant Chinese girls’ feet; torturing political prisoners in Turkey; Japanese whaling fleets; Brazilian logging companies burning swathes of rainforest; and so on.

So, though it might first appear to be a cosy solution to the question of how one ought to behave, if it means that we have to say things like “Who are we to judge those who perpetrated the Holocaust? We cannot condemn them for being in the wrong since it was the right thing for the Germans to do given their culture at the time” then most of us would feel there is something going wrong. Relativism smacks of the cop-out.

Another reason to view it with suspicion is that it condemns reformers since they are, by definition, questioning and attempting to change the ethical principles of their culture – principles which the relativist must insist are the right ones for that culture including the reformer. Thus, when Wilberforce began agitating for the banning of slavery, when Martin Luther King began agitating for black emancipation in America, when the Raj opposed suttee, even when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, their actions are all to be condemned because they are immoral since they contravene the ethical principles of the culture. Again, for most of us, this is not a comfortable position to try and defend.

Looking at such examples leads us to another criticism of ethical relativism: it is far too vague to be of any real use in the practical question of how one should live one’s life. What is a ‘culture’? Take, for instance, a Roman Catholic in Britain: which culture is one to appeal to if one is a raped teenage girl who is pregnant but does not want a child: the ‘Roman Catholic culture’ which says you must have the baby, or the ‘British culture’ which says that you need not have the baby? Also, since cultural practices change with time, how are we to know whether we should adopt the old or the new cultural practice? For example, if you lived in Britain in the 1950s should you condemn homosexuality (as the culture in the recent past did) or tolerate it (as some people were urging)? Cultural relativism gives no guidance on such questions.

Finally, as the considerations above indicate, how are we to resist sliding from cultural relativism to subjective relativism, from the idea that the ethical principles of the culture is the arbiter of what is right or wrong to the ethical principles of the individual being the arbiter of what is right or wrong? A subjective relativist is like a character in Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon: “I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after”. In short, you can do what you like and that will be morally good too. If you find anything attractive in this philosophical position, you would have to call a person torturing you for the fun of it a good person if he, the torturer felt good about it. Which, perhaps, would be what you deserved.

Turning now to the second attraction of ethical relativism, its link with toleration, we can quickly see that this is not going to be of much comfort after all. This is because toleration is itself an ethical principle: you ought to be tolerant of the behaviour of others. As such, it may be an ethical principle in one culture but not in another (and, of course, the relativist can neither praise nor blame either culture for the principle’s presence or absence). Consider this exchange between a cultural relativist (CR) and a member of an intolerant culture (G):

CR: The ethical principles of every culture in the world are equally right and good.
G:  On the contrary, only my culture’s ethical principles are right and good, the rest are wrong and bad.

It is clear that, since the two statements are contradictory, they cannot both be true. The only other possibilities are that both statements are untrue, or that only one of the statements is true.

If G’s were true and CR’s untrue that would eliminate the contradiction but would knock out cultural relativism as a tenable philosophical position.

But what if CR’s were true and G’s untrue? Well, if what CR says is true, then this means that what G says is true since G’s culture is one of ‘every culture in the world’. And, as we’ve seen, if G’s is true this makes CR’s untrue – again, knocking out cultural relativism.

This analysis therefore also undermines the initial cosiness of cultural relativism as a philosophical position. To answer the question of ‘Why ought we to be tolerant of all things except intolerance?’ is an ethical question to which cultural relativism has no reasonable answer. Since tolerance was the key element of the attraction of relativism then this is potentially fatal to the idea.

This being the case, we need to step beyond the limits of ‘culture’ and look to see if there are any justifications for universal ethical principles.


This philosophical position seeks to set out ethical principles which hold for all people, in all situations, for all time. A tall order, perhaps, but one which may be necessary if we are to avoid sinking into the bog of relativism.

The primary place to look is towards God. Since God is the Author of all things, He knows what is good and what is bad so all we need do is ask Him and we will then know exactly what we ought, or ought not, to do. Though straight-forward, this is not quite as simple as it sounds.

Firstly, there are different varieties of God out there which seem to have different views on how things should be done (as small examples: one seems to demand that deference to Him should be shown by covering the head and exposing the feet whereas another requires exactly the opposite; one requires us to have just one wife at a time, another enjoins us to have several; one indicates we should stone adulterers, another says forgive them). Hence, how can we know that we have got the right God before following the right set of ethical principles? The only way seems to be to have the One and Only God speak to us direct and then we can know for sure. However, this is not really acceptable since some people claim to have acted on God’s direct spoken word and most people find their actions reprehensible – an example is ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’ who mutilated and killed prostitutes after (he claimed) hearing the voice of God telling him to do this.

Even if we discover the One and Only God there is a further point to be made: is what God says is good merely arbitrary? For example, is the statement ‘You ought to obey your parents’ something that God has just made up because he was in that frame of mind? Or is it a good thing to do in itself? Believers would like to say that their God’s ethical principles are not arbitrary – that it is good to be compassionate, charitable and loving not just because God has decided this, but because He wouldn’t have decided it any other way. But this, of course, acknowledges that there are ethical principles which are not just made up, that even God has to ‘latch on’ to such principles in the same way that we do.

Further, we might question whether a believer who acts simply in accordance with commandments is really behaving morally at all. If someone obeys instructions just in order to avoid punishment, or in order to enjoy some reward, we might justifiably see them as less morally good. You ought to behave kindly because behaving kindly is right, not behave kindly because you might get a reward or might otherwise be punished. In short, the question of obedience to God’s commandments is secondary to doing what is ethically right.

Finally, another difficulty with God as setter of ethical principles is that non-believers in God cannot possibly behave morally. However, this seems wholly wrong: any reasonable Christian would agree that Buddha was a good person even though he didn’t believe in the Christian’s God; any non-believer who tortured children for fun could not claim their actions were morally neutral since they were faithless. Again, we are appealing to ethical principles that are ‘above and beyond’ the concept or actuality of God.

Given these considerations, God is, at best, unnecessary with respect to the question of ethical principles. The question of whether there are alternative possibilities that might justify such principles can be explored by considering the notions of virtue, duty and the consequences of actions. We will look at each of these in turn.

Deontological Ethics »