Ethics Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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Scales weighing up right and wrong

A long time ago, people didn't worry about ethics... they just did whatever they had to do to survive. Life was simple. Then came the discovery of fire, and suddenly life got comfortable and everyone got angsty over whether they were doing the 'right' thing.

There are three basic ethics questions that can be asked:

  • What are the true moral values?

  • How do we find out what they are?

  • How do we justify them?

In practice these questions tend to be swamped by the more common trio:

  • What is my neighbour doing wrong?

  • How can I justify carrying on doing what I'm already doing?

  • Where's the moral high ground, so I can stand on it and sneer?

The answers are harder to come by.

Ethical Problems

To highlight the contrast between different approaches to ethics, a number of tricky situations have been thought of. By examining extreme cases, it's possible to get a better understanding of the problem. Think of the following parables, then, as a 'choose your own adventure' game.

The Parable of the Unlucky Traveller

One day, a young student comes into a doctor's office in a foreign town, complaining of stomach ache. The doctor examines the student, and determines that there's nothing wrong that won't be fixed by a few pills. However, further conversation reveals that the student is unattached, has no children or dependents, and few living relatives or close friends. Meanwhile a number of people in the town are in desperate need of a transplant, and will surely die if they don't receive one.

  1. The doctor tells the traveller that he needs to perform surgery to correct the problem; and, while he is under anaesthetic, kills him and redistributes the vital organs to his needy patients.

  2. The doctor prescribes some pills, and watches helplessly as his patients slowly and agonizingly die.

  3. The doctor passes the buck by asking his patients what they want him to do; and, if they all vote for the redistribution of organs, that's what he'll do.

The Parable of the Live Grenade

An old man is visiting his local church for Sunday service, and is enjoying a particularly interesting sermon by the visiting priest on the subject of 'The Evil of the Internet'. Half-way through the sermon, a terrorist leaps in and tosses a grenade into the congregation, where it rolls next to the feet of the man.

  1. The man leaps onto the grenade, sacrificing his own life to save the strangers in the seats next to him. The grenade explodes, killing him instantly, and waking up those who had fallen asleep listening to the sermon.

  2. The man kicks the grenade away, under the seat in front, where it explodes, killing five double glazing salesmen.

The Parable of the Three Thieves

A judge had recently moved to Elbonia, and was still getting to grips with the legal system there, where multiple people with similar crimes would be charged at the same time. The week before Christmas he was faced with three thieves. All were clearly guilty, but he had some discretion over the level of punishment for each one.

The first thief had broken into the house of a neighbour, whom he hated, and stolen his wedding ring. The ring wasn't worth very much, but it had a huge amount of sentimental value, and the neighbour had been very distressed.

The second thief had a boyfriend who was suffering from AIDS, and she was not able to afford the expensive treatment he needed. In a bold move, she broke into a local hospital and stole it from their supplies, and proceeded to treat him. Unfortunately, being unskilled in medicine, she gave the wrong dosage and her boyfriend died instantly.

The third thief was a volunteer youth worker forced into stealing, against his will, to fund the drugs he required to keep himself alive after his liver transplant. Over the course of two years, he took around ten thousand Elbonian Sheckles from his bank with a clever combination of forgery and bluff, until he was finally caught. But in that same time he had helped many children to escape their cycle of crime, and had held down a steady job.

  1. The judge sentenced the first thief to the worst punishment, as the crime was clearly planned with the aim of hurting the victim. The third thief was given a lighter punishment, since he had not meant to hurt anyone. The second thief, who stole for love, was let off.

  2. The judge sentenced the second thief to the worst punishment, as her theft had resulted in the worse consequences. The first thief was given a lighter punishment, as the consequences of the act were fairly minor. The third was let off, as the crime was in the best interests of society.

  3. The judge sentenced the third thief to the worst punishment, as he had stolen the largest amount. The second thief was given a lighter punishment. The first was let off as the value of the theft was so tiny.

Ethical theories

Philosophers have spent a lot of time forming ethical theories, and being totally ignored by everyone else. But at least it keeps them off the streets.

Authoritarian Ethics

Fred says this is good, and Fred is bigger than me; so this is good.

This is normally the answer religion has to the question: God, as a perfect being, is wholly good; so do what he tells you to. In the unlikely event that he doesn't talk to you directly, the nearest holy man will be pleased to relay the message.

Alternatively, authority theories might appeal instead to the state, saying that the laws of the land, or the constitution, say what is good and what is bad. Do only that which will minimize your chance of being sued.

The problem comes if we can imagine the Authority telling us to do something bad; if God told us to sacrifice our only son, or the law told us to discriminate against blacks. There must be some other benchmark of morality, then.

Intuitionist Ethics

It's blatantly obvious that this is a good thing to do.

The intuitionist argument is that whether or not something is ethical is as easy to decide as whether or not something is green. We all know, in our heart, what is good and what is not good, and all we have to do is listen.

While very appealing, this theory has a crucial problem in that it doesn't allow people to get into huge arguments. If one person intuitively feels that eating meat is good, and another believes that anything less than vegetarianism is bad, then there is no way that either can use intuitionist ideas to convince the other. The very fact that people have wildly different intuitions is a problem with intuitionism.

Egoist Ethics

I want to do this, so this is a good thing to do.

Cynics and sociologists tend to suggest that all this talk of ethics is irrelevant, because everyone does what they want to do anyway. Embrace egoism, they seem to say, because you'll end up doing so anyway. Indeed, it's even possible to argue that selfish behaviour is ethically demanded. The logic goes as follows:

  1. Assume that it is rational to act in our self interest.

  2. Assume that one ought to act rationally.

  3. Therefore, conclude that we ought to act in our self interest.

Ignoring the question of whether the proof is valid, egoism suffers from two problems; like intuitionism, it doesn't help us to resolve disputes, and it doesn't take into account any feelings of empathy or self-sacrifice.

Egoism can be softened from it's rather harsh appearance by remembering that if we act in a nice way in public, then people are more likely to be nice to us, while thieves are likely to be thrown in jail. So sometimes 'selfish' behaviour can appear remarkably selfless.

Consequentialist Ethics

Doing this will increase the total happiness in the world, so doing this is good.

Consequentialism says that we should act according to the consequences. Generally the idea is that we judge the consequences and try to maximize happiness, but we might equally try to maximize freedom, or minimize suffering.

Maximizing happiness is all very well, but some people don't set happiness as their major goal in life; they might aim for stability, or spirituality1. An alternative is to try to maximize satisfaction of preferences, but this runs into problems with drug addicts or small children, whose immediate preferences may not be in their best interests.

Consequentialism is very popular; it governs Isaac Asimov's Robots, after all. But there are problems, it's not easy to measure happiness or predict all the consequences of our actions. Also, sometimes we might treat one individual very badly because it will increase the greater good of everyone else.

Historical Ethics

We did this last time, so doing this is good.

Many ethical problems we face in our daily lives will be similar to problems we've personally faced in the past, or to problems that famous figures we've looked up to have faced themselves. By examining these precedents we can often decide what the right course of action is. This is often an important source of ethical wisdom in religion. One can find how to act by examining the actions of holy men and God in similar circumstances. It is also used in legal circles, as 'case law'.

Historical ethics is able to offer very little advice if we face genuinely novel ethical dilemmas, though; so often it must be combined with other sources of ethics. In addition, it can lead to heavy resistance to change... if historical ethics were universal we'd still be shivering in caves, because our marketing shaman would be saying, 'If fire is such a great thing, how come nobody else is using it?'.

The opposite viewpoint is Extreme Situational Ethics, which postulates that because no two situations are identical, and because no person in the past knows the present situation as well as those currently involved, we should completely eschew the past as a source of help. Both views can seem a little over the top; and many people would seek a compromise between ignoring the past and slavishly obeying it, a position which some would designate as (normal) Situational Ethics.

Logical Ethics

I'm really intelligent, and by a complicated process involving the worst elements of quantum mechanics, F1 driving, and brain surgery, have deduced that this is a good thing to do.

Some people have attempted to discover ethics based only on introspection and deep thought. Unfortunately, the sorts of people who are happy to spend years thinking about ethics aren't a reasonable cross section of the general community; but the answers that they've come up with are worth a look anyway.

The 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant said that people should 'act only upon those maxims which you can at once will to be a universal law'. This means that one should not act on the maxim 'steal when it is convenient', as the institution of property would collapse if this idea was universal, and it would no longer be possible to steal. But you could act on the maxim 'treat all property as common'.

Others have argued that in a 'natural state' we would be free to do whatever we want; but, as people congregate, they have to agree to give up conflicting freedoms. However, there are some freedoms which are too basic to give up, such as freedom of speech and association; these are necessary in order to achieve such agreements, and so cannot be compromised.

Finally, social contract theories suppose that our duties are determined by agreements we make with others. So the doctor agrees to be bound by the Hippocratic Oath in order to get payment and respect; while the slave agrees to work long hours in poor conditions in order to, uh, uh... Well, it's clear that in reality we are born into a social practice, and we can't change it. The justice of a society can be judged by asking whether we would be satisfied to be born into any role in that society. This requires possibly more empathy than most people possess.

Communitarianist Ethics

Let's all get together and discuss whether doing this is a good idea

The idea of these theories is that you take a large number of people, all with their own intuitions, you stick them in a big room, and you don't let them come out until they've all agreed what ethical behaviour is. Whether this brings images of politicians bickering or old women in a knitting circle probably says a lot about your outlook on life.

One of the problems with this view of ethics is that most people in the world seem to think that everyone who disagrees with them is stupid, or possibly insane. Others feel that they have all the correct answers already. Certainly many, many people each claim to be one of the few moral people in an immoral world. The prospect of getting all these people to talk and, more importantly, listen to one another seems doubtful. The closest we have come, in practice, to the Communitarian ideal, is probably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ethical Controversies

Of the Past

We're not alone in facing these issues; previous generations have had to try and decide the rights and wrongs of much more basic things. Religions, for example, have grappled with many tricky questions; is it right to cause someone suffering or death, if it may lead to their salvation in the afterlife? If God shows his greatness by forgiving sins, should we sin harder to make him look greater? If believers who die go straight to Valhalla, should we kill ourselves at the earliest opportunity?

Slavery used to be seen as a normal thing, and indeed a building block of civilization, yet now it is looked upon in disgust. Were the ancients wrong? Or is it simply that circumstances have changed, and what was a necessary evil then is no longer required2?

Equally tricky has been the debate over war, and the times when it is acceptable to send people to their death. Pacifists have often claimed that war is never acceptable, for any reason, while others have been more prosaic in their judgments.

Nowadays, nearly everyone accepts that women and minorities have rights, and should be treated equally and fairly by society. In the past they were treated as second class citizens (as, sadly, they are still in some parts of the world) and a woman's place was quite firmly believed to be in the home. If we have managed to get it so wrong in the past, what hope is there that we have got it right now?

Of the Present

There are a number of thorny ethical issues that we face today, none of which seem to have easy solutions. We have the debate over euthanasia: Should we be allowed to kill someone if they request it? Does the right to die with dignity override the inherent sacredness of life? With an ageing population, can we afford for it not to?

There is also a lot of argument taking place about abortion; should we uphold the woman's 'right' to choose, or the foetus' 'right' to life? Is it right to allow people to abort the foetus' of those who have abnormalities? Or is this coming too close to eugenics? When is a foetus a person?

Animal Rights is another thorny issue, and has led to violence, as those with differing views clash. Do animals have rights at all? Is it right to eat meat? Is it right to test products on animals? What about other products we gain from animals, such as wool from sheep, milk from cows, and entertainment from zoos and circuses?

Of the Future

Technology and progress are likely to increase the hard choices we have to make. Genetic engineering is a minefield already, and can only get worse as we learn more about it. Is it right to be able to patent genes? Should insurance companies have access to an individual's genetic records? If testing turns up a fatal and unavoidable illness in thirty years time, should the victim be told, or is ignorance bliss?

We may also have to face a situation where there are differing levels of life on the planet. The new life form might come from genetically engineered superhumans, from a race of friendly, but superior, aliens, or from sentient computers. How should we react? Will a superior race be entitled to treat us as we now treat animals?

There are many other issues, of course: is it right to do transplants across the species barrier? Is it permissible to clone humans so that the clone's role is merely to be an organ donor? If someone is in cryogenic storage, do we have a moral obligation to thaw them out when they can be treated? And these are just the issues that we can foresee in advance. Issues which we have yet to forecast may be even more complex.

The Final Solution

Sadly, there is no final answer to the great ethical questions, nor is there a single theory which can solve all the controversies. It seems that everyone chooses their own basis for ethics, and what works for you may not work for anyone else. The infamous 'Final Solution' of the bloody 20th Century resulted in the systematic murder of millions of human beings. The cost of getting it wrong can be frighteningly high, a terrible lesson that is yet to be learned in many parts of the world. Choose wisely.

1Some people believe that the purpose shared by all living things is to find true happiness, but that all beings tend to mistake delusion and obscurant phenomena as happiness, and end up not being happy.2It has been suggested that the main impetus for the abolition of slavery in North America was the cold northern winters, which made keeping slaves economically unsound.

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