|Facts, values and choices
So far we have been exploring questions of knowledge: What can we know for
certain? Can we know anything about the nature of reality as a whole? How
are our language and our thought related to the experiences that come to
us through our senses? These led on to three big issues for philosophy:
scientific method, the relationship between
mind and body, and the
existence of God. But philosophy is also concerned
with questions of a very different kind: What should we do? How should we
organise society? What is right? How should we understand the idea of justice?
On what basis can we choose between different courses of action? These lead
to a study of ethics, and of political philosophy and the philosophy of law.
These more immediately practical aspects of philosophy have a long history.
Although the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece had probed many
questions about the nature of reality, questions to which their answers are
still interesting in terms of both epistemology and the natural sciences,
with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the emphasis shifted towards issues of
morality. So, for example, Plato's Republic is not based on the question
'What is society?' but 'What is justice?', and it is through that question
that many other issues about society and how it should be ruled are explored.
Aristotle (in Nicomachean Ethics) asked about the 'good' which was
the aim of every action, and about what could constitute a 'final good' -
something that was to be sought for its own sake, rather than for the sake
of something higher. He came to the view that the highest good for man was
eudaimonia, which literally means 'having a good spirit', but perhaps
can be translated as 'happiness'. He saw it as the state in which a person
was fulfilling his or her potential and natural function. It expressed a
form of human excellence or virtue (arete) This tied in with his general
view that everything had a 'final cause' : a
goal and a purpose to which it moves. If you understand the final cause
of something you also understand its fundamental essence,which finds it's
expression in that goal. If a knife had a soul, Aristotle argued, that would
be 'cutting' - that is what makes it a knife, that is what it is there
to do. What then is the essence of humankind?
What is it there to
do? What is its goal?
Aristotle linked his ethics to his whole understanding of human life. He
refused to accept any simple rule which cou1d cover all situations, and he
also considered human beings in relationship to the sociery within which
they lived, recognising the influence this has on human behaviour. Aristotle
saw man as both a 'thinking animal', and a 'political animal'. It is therefore
not surprising that ethics becomes the study
of rational choice in action, and that it should have a social as well
as an individual aspect. In this chapter we shall take a brief look at some
of the main philosophical approaches to moral issues and in the following
chapter we shall examine issues of a social and political nature. Although,
for convenience, morality and politics are separated, it is important to
remember that morality is more than the establishing of a set of personal
values. It is equally possible to examine morality in terms of the requirements
of the state and the place of individuals within society; the personal social
cannot be separated in ethics.
'Is' and 'ought'
Once you start to talk about morality, or about the purpose of things, you
introduce matters of value as well as those of facts. An important
question for philosophy is whether it is possible to derive values from facts,
or whether facts must always remain 'neutral'. In other words:
Facts say what 'is'.
Values say what 'ought' to be.
Can we ever derive an 'ought' from an 'is'?
If the answer to this question is 'no', then how are we to
decide isssues of morality? If no facts can be used to establish morality
can there be absolute moral rules, or are all moral decisions relative,
dependcnt upon particular circumstances, feelings or desires? Later in this
chapter we shall examine two ways in which philosophers have presented facts
that they consider to be relevant to what people 'ought' to do:
1. An argument based on design and purpose (following
Aristotle's comments given earlier).
2. An argument based on the expected results of an action.
We shall also examine other features of ethical language:
expressing approval or otherwise, recommending a course of action, or
expressing emotion. But first, if ethics
is to make any sense, we must ask if people are, in fact,
free to decide what to do. If they are not
free, if they have no choice, then praise and blame, approval or disapproval
are inappropriate. We cannot tell someone what they ought to do, unless it
is at least possible for them to do it.
Freedom and determinism
If (as Kant argued) space, time and causality are categories
used by the human mind to interpret experience, it is inevitable that we
shall see everything in the world as causally conditioned -
things don't just happen, they must have a
This process of looking for causes, which lies at the heart of the scientific
quest, has as its logical goal a total1y understood world in which each
individual thing and actions explained in terms of all that went before it.
In theory, given total knowledge, everything could be predicted. It reflects
what we may call the Newtonian world-view, that the universe is like
We saw that this created problems in terms of the relationship between mind
and body. What is the human mind? Can it make
a difference? If everything is causally conditioned, then even the electrical
impulses in my brain are part of a closed mechanicaI system. My freedom is
an illusion. I may feel sure that I have made a free choice, but in fact
everything that has happened to me since birth, and everything that has made
the world the way it is since the beginning
of time, has contributed to that decision.
|In other words
'I just knew you'd say that!' One of the annoying things about people who
claim to predict our choices is that we like to think we are free, but are
forced to recognise that we may not always be the best judge of
One of the fundamental issues of philosophy is freedom and determinism. It
is also related to reductionism, that is, the reduction of complex entities
(like human beings) to the simpler parts of which they are composed. If we
are nothing more than the individual cells that comprise our bodies, and
if those cells are determined by physical forces and are predictable, then
there seems no room for the whole human being to exercise freedom.
For now, dealing with ethics, one distinction is clear:
If we are free to to make a choice, then we can be responsible
for what we do. Praise or blame are appropriate. We can act on the basis
of values that we hold.
If we are totally conditioned, we have no choice in what we
do, and it makes no sense to speak of moral action springing from choices
and values, or action being worthy of praise or blame.
By the same token, there are levels of determinism. It is clear that nobody
is totally free:
1.We have physical limitations. I can't make an unaided leap 100 feet
into the air, even if I feel I have a vocation to do so. Overweight middle-aged
men do not make the best ballet dancers. It's not a matter of choice, merely
of physical fact.
2.We may be psychogically predisposed to act in certain ways rather
than others. If you are shy and depressed, you are unlikely to be the life
and soul of a party. But that is not a matter of choice, merely of present
3.We may be socially restrained. I may choose to do something really
outrageous, but know that I will not get away with it.
4. We may also be limited by the financial and political structures
under which we live. There are many things that I cannot do without money,
In considering the moral implications of actions, we have to assess the degree
of freedom available to the agent.
Is a soldier who is ordered to shoot prisoners or unarmed civilians thereby
absolved of moral responsibility? Is he free to choose whether to carry out
that act or not? Does the fear of his own death, executed for refusal to
obey on order, determine that he must obey?
If a person commits a crime while known to be suffering from a mental illness,
or if a psychiatric report indicates that he or she was disturbed at the
time, that fact will be taken into account when apportioning blame. But how
many people who commit crimes could be described as clear headed and well
balanced? How many have no mitigating circumstances of some sort when family
background, education, deprivation and other things are considered?
We are all conditioned by many factors; there is no doubt of that. The difference
between that and determinism is that determinism leaves no scope for human
freedom and choice
whereas t hse who argue against determinism claim that there remains a measure
of freedom that is exercised within the prevailing conditions.
Notice how many of the topics studied in philosophy are related to one another.
This freedom/determinism issue could be considered in the context of:
How we understand the world (Kant's idea that we impose causality
on all that we experience, so that all phenomena are conditioned).
The existence of God. (Can there be an infinite number of causes?
If God knows what I will do, am I free and responsible, or is he?)
How scientific laws are framed. (Can they claim
absolute truth? Can we ever be certain that
something has caused something else?)
The question of whether or not there is
a self over and above the atoms and cells
of which a body is made up. If so, does that self have a life that is independent
of the determined life of individual cells?
But keep in mind that moral choice may itself be influenced by our view of
the world, of the idea of God, of whether we are totally deterrmined by
scientific laws and of whether we have a 'self'. Everything we are, everything
we believe, everything we understand about the world is there in the moment
when we make a moral choice; not necessarily consciously, but there in the
background, exerting an influence.
Not all philosophers have presented the issues of freedom, deterrminism and
moral choice in quite this way. A notable exception in Western thought is
Spinoza. He argued that freedom was in fact an illusion, created because
we do not know all the causes of our actions. Things that happen to us produce
in us either passive or active emotions. The passive emotions, such as hatred,
anger or fear lead a person into bondage, whereas the active ones, those
generated by an understanding of our real circumstances, lead to a positive
view of life, and an ability to be ourselves. Spinoza held that the more
one understood the world the more the negative emotions would diminish and
be replaced by positive ones. One might perhaps say of this that freedom
(and the only freedom that Spinoza will accept) is the ability to see life
exactly as it is and say 'yes' to it.
Kinds of ethical language.
What does it mean to say that something is 'good' or that an
action is 'right'? Do these words refer to a hidden quality in that action,
something over and above what is actually observed? What sort of evidence
can be given for such a description?
I can show you what I mean by 'red' by pointing to a range of red objects,
and relying on your ability to identify their common feature. Can I do the
same by pointing to a range of actions that I consider to be morally right?
Take for example:
a married couple having sexual intercourse;
someone helping a blind person across a road;
paying for goods in a shop (as opposed to stealing them).
Considering only the factual description of each action, what do they
have in common? What quality of the actions make them 'moral'? And if moral
language is not the same as physical description, what is it and how is it
This is the most straightforward form of ethical language. It is simply a
description of what happens: what moral choices are made and in which particular
circumstances. Rather than making a statement about the rights or wrongs
of abortion, for example, descriptive ethics simply gives facts and figures
about how many abortions take place, how they are carried out, and what legal
restraints are placed on that practice.
Descriptive ethics is about 'is' rather than 'ought'.
Normative ethics deals with the norms of action, in terms of whether an action
is considered good or bad, right or wrong. It expresses values, and makes
a moral judgement based on them. It may relate to facts, but it is not wholly
defined by facts. It may be justifed in a number of ways that we shall examine
Normative ethics is about 'ought'; it makes judgements.
When philosophy examines the claims made in normative ethics, a number of
questions are raised:
What does it mean to say that something is right or wrong?
Can moral statements be said to be either true or false?
Do they express more than the preferences of the person who
What is the meaning of the terms used in ethical discourse?
These questions are not themselves moral statements; they do not say that
any particular thing is right or wrong. Meta-ethics is a branch of philosophy
which does to norrnative ethical statement what philosophy does to language
in general. It examines ethical language to find what it means and how it
Meta-ethics produces theories about the nature of ethical language.
In his book Principia Ethica (1903), G E Moore argued that the term
'good' could not be defined, and that every attempt to do so ended in reducing
goodness to some other quality which was not common to all 'good' things[See
R.Pirsig "Lila:An Enquiry into Morals"].
In other words, goodness could involve kindness, altruism,
generosity, a sense of social justice -but it is not actually defined by
any of these. Moore therefore c1aimed that:
|Everyone does in fact understand the question "Is this good?"
When he thinks of it, his state of mind is different from what it would be,
were he asked "Is this pleasant, or desired, or approved?" It has a distinct
meaning for him, even though he may not recognise in what respect it is distinct.
Principia Ethica, Chapter 1
He likend it to describing the colour yellow. In the end you just have to
point to things and say that they are yellow without being able to define
the colour. You know what yellow is by intuition. In the same way, you know
what goodness is, even though it cannot be defined.
In this theory, saying that something is good or bad is really just a way
of saying that you approve or disapprove of it. In Chapter 1 we saw that,
early in the 20th century, there developed an approach to language known
as logical positivism. In this, statements were called meaningless unless
they either corresponded to empirical data, or were true by definition. On
this basis, moral statements as meaningless.The response to that was to claim
that moral statements were not statements about facts, but were performing
some other function. Emotivism provides one such function. A moral statement
expressed an attitude. It is not true or false by reference to that which
it describes, but in respect to its ability to express the emotions of the
This is another response to the challenge of logical positivism. It claims
that moral language is actually recommending a course of action. If I say
something is good, I am actually saying that I feel it is should be
done - in other words I am recommending it.
Naturalism and metaphysical ethics
G E Moore had argued that you could not get an 'ought' from an 'is' - that
you could not derive morality from the facts of human behaviour. He made
an absolute distinction between facts and values from Plato and Aristotle
onwards, however, there have been philosophers who have argued that moral
principles and values should be derived from the examination of human beings,
their society, and their place within the world as a whole. This task is
termed 'naturalism' or 'metaphysical ethics', and it implies that what you
ought to do has some some close releation to what 'is', in fact, the case
and you and the world.In other words, that morality should be more
than an expression of personal choice, it should be rooted in an overall
understanding nf the world.
|In other words
If you describe someone's actions or decisions, the truth of
what you say is known by checking the facts.
If you say that something is 'right' or 'wrong', there are no
straightforward facts to check in order to verify your claim.
Meta-ethics, therefore, looks at these ethical claims and asks
what they mean, whether they can be true or false, and, if so, Low that truth
may be established. If ethics is not about external facts, it may be about
intuitions, or emotional responses, or recommendations, or the general structures
of life and their implications for individual action.
The theories mentioned here have been developed within the philosophical
debate about the nature of language in general and of the status of moral
language in particular. But whatever the status of this language they use,
the fact is that people continue to make mora1 claims. It is therefore important
to examine the based upon which such claims may be made.
Three bases for ethics
If moral language is simply expressing an emotion or a preference,
then it does not seem to need further justification, it implies no more than
the feelings of the moment. If we want to argue for a moral position, however,
we need to find a rational basis for ethics. Within the history of Western
philosophy there have been three principal bases offered: natural law,
utilitarianism and the categorical imperative. We shall examine each of these
In Book 1 of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says:
Every art and every enquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought
to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared
to be that at which all things aim.
Aristotle develops this into the idea of the supreme good for human beings:
happiness (eudaimonia). If you agree with Aristotle that everything
has a final cause or purpose, a 'good' for which it exists, or if you accept
with Plato that the 'forms' (especially
the 'form of the good') have a permanent reality, independent of our own
minds and perceptions, then it should be possible to specify which things
are 'good' and which 'bad', which actions are 'right' and which 'wrong' in
an independent and objective way.
Natural law is the approach to ethics which claims that something is right
if it fulfils its true purpose in life, wrong if it goes against it.
Sex Natural law based on the idea of
a natural purpose inherent in everything1 might seem particularly appropriate
for dealing with issues of sex, since it is clear that sex does have a natural
purpose that is essential for life. In natural law terms:
the natural function of sex is the reproduction of the species;
non-reproductive sexual activity is 'against nature' and therefore
wrong (or at least as a misuse of the natural function of sex). Masturbation,
contraception and homosexuality could all be criticised from this standpoint.
Abortion and euthanasia.
It is natural for every creature to seek and preserve its own life. If everything
has a natural purpose to fulfil, then abortion and euthanasia can be seen
as wrong, since they go against this natural outworking of the processes
Unless there is something sufficiently wrong for there to be
a miscarriage, the newly fertilised embryo will naturally grow into a new,
independent human being. The 'final cause' of the embryo (to use Aristotle's
term) is the adult human which it will one day become. It is therefore wrong
to frustrate that natural process through abortion. On a natural law basis,
even if the child is not wanted and its life is likely to be an unhappy one,
it is still wrong to seek an abortion.
When the body can no longer sustain the burden of illness, it
dies. To anticipate this is to frustrate the natural tendency towards
self-preservation. The results of an act of euthanasia rray be to lessen
a burden ofsuffering, but it would still be seen as wrong in itself, even
if the person making that moral judgement had great sympathy for those involved.
Notce how this approach to ethics relates to the philosophy of religion.
The basis of the natural law approach is that the world is purposeful and
that the purpose of any part of it may be understood by human reason. It
may be seen as the ethical aspect of the traditional
argument from design (see p.130). [Video BB14
OU:Argument from Design]
Natural law is not the same as a consideration of what appears as a natural
response to a situation - natural in the sense that it reflects the nature
that humankind shares with the rest of the animal kingdom. Rather it is nature
as seen through the eyes of reason; indeed, for most of those who would use
a natural law argument, it is also coloured by religious views, with the
world seen as the purposeful creation by God.
A newspaper article on adultery was headed 'We have
descended from apes but we don't have to behave
like them'. In it the author opposed the fashionable theory that is was 'natural'
to commit adultery, arguing that although peop!e are instinctively 'bad'
they are capable of exercising self-restraint. In particular, she opposed
the idea that adultery was simply the natural expression of a genetic urge
to reproduce in the most favourable way possible, and that men viould therefore
'naturally' be attracted to a number of other women. Part of her argument
was expressed thus:
| The near-acceptance of watered-down Freud has allowed juries
to accept that murderers were 'temporarily insane'; watered-down Darwin may
also soon allow them to accept that rapists were 'temporarily possessed by
the genetic need to reproduce'. But at the heart of all these 'new' explanations
for human behaviour lies a fundamental problem: reading about them, it is
impossible not to feel that the wheel is being reinvented. To say 'we are
all genetic adulterers' is strikingly reminiscent of the similarly strict
Christian view of human nature reflected in the phrase 'we are all sinners'
... But there is a difference between the world described by neoDarwinians
and the world described by the great religions:
the latter believe that the codes and practices which go by the name of morality
exist to control our 'natural instincts'
Anne Applebaum The Daily Telegraph 29 August 1994, p.17
Is it possible for something to be natural
Is self-restraint always unnatural?
Is the genetic strengthening of a species (which presumably
could be helped by allowing the strongest to breed freely with the most
beautiful) itself a final 'good' to be sought?
|In other words
Natural law is not the same thing as a law of nature.
'Natural law' is the rational consideration of the final purpose
of everything in nature, and the conscious shaping of action to bring it
in line with that purpose.
There are many issues within medical ethics that have a 'natural law' component.
For example, a 'naturally' infertile couple may be offered IVF or other
treatments to help them to conceive a child, and it is 'natural' that they
should want to do so. But what about the nature and purpose of the treatments
involved? Should they be approved by natural law, in the sense that they
facilitate the 'final purpose of having the child? Furthermore, may it not
be part of a natural mechanism of population
limitation that some couples are infertile, and that to introduce an
artificial process is therefore against the natural end of their infertility?
If such treatment is branded as 'unnatural', what are we to say about medicine
in general? It may be natural to die from
an infection, and unnatural to be saved by an antibiotic. But, if natural
law seeks the fulfilment of each human being, is not the prevention of premature
death a decision based on a recognition that an individual might well fulfil
his or her potential only by being given a chance to live?
Utililarianism is a moral theory associated particularly with Jeremy Bentham
(1748-1832), a philosopher, lawyer and social reformer, involved particularly
with the practical issues of prison reform, education and the integrity of
public institutions, and further deveoped by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873),
a campaigner for individual liberty and for the
rights of women. Its roots, however, are found earlier in the basic idea
Hedonism is the term used for a philosophy which makes the achievement
of happiness the prime goal in life. Epicurus taught in Athens at the end
of the 4th century BCE. He took an atomistic view of the world (everything
is composed of indivisible atoms), regarded the gods as having little influence
on life, and generally considered the main purpose of life as the gaining
of pleasure. Pain, he he1d, was of shorter duration than pleasure, and death
was nothing but the dissolution of the atoms of which we are made, with
no afterlife to fear. He therefore considered
that the wise should lead to a life free from anxiety, and if morality had
any purpose it was to maximise the amount of pleasure that life can offer.
To be fair to Epicurus, this crude outline does not do justice to the fact
that he distinguished the more intellectual pleasures from the animal ones,
and that Epicureans were certainly not 'hedonists' in the popular sense.
Nevertheless, Epicurus did establish the maximising of happiness as
the prime purpose of morality.
This was to become the basis of utilitarian theories of ethics: that
the right thing to do on any occasion is that which aims to give maximum
happiness for all concerned. This may be expressed in the phrase 'the greatest
good for greatest number', and Bentham made the point that everyone
should count equally in such an assessment - a radical point of view for
him to take at that time. Utilitarianism is therefore a theory based on the
expected results of an action, rather than any inherent
sense of right or wrong.
This is very much a common-sense view of ethics; to do what is right is often
associated with doing what will benefit the majority. From a philosophical
point of view, however, there are certain problems associated with it:
You can never be certain what the total effects of an action
are going to be. To take a crude example:you may save the life of a drowning
child who then grows up to be a mass murderer. In practice, there always
has to be a cut-off point beyond which it is not practicable to calculate
consequences. Added to this is the fact that we see the result of actions
only with hindsight; at the time, we might have expected something quite
different. Thus, although utilitarianism seems to offer a straightforward
way of assessing moral issues, its assessment must always remain provisional.
The definition of what constitutes happiness may not be
objective. Other people may not want what you deem to be their hapniness
or best interests. The utilitarian argument appears to make a factual
consideration of results the basis of moral choice, but in practice in selecting
the degree or type of happiness to be considered, a person is already making
value (and perhaps moral ) judgements.
How do you judge between pain caused to a single individual
and the resulting happiness of many others? Would global benefit actually
justify the inflicting of pain on a single innocent person?
|A silly example
A perfectly healthy young visitor innocently walks into a hospital in which
there are a number of people all waiting for various organ transplants. Might
a utilitarian surgeon be tempted?
But more serious ones
In allocating limited healthcare budgets, choices have to be made. Do you
spend a large amount of money on an operation which may or may not save the
life of a seriously ill child, if the consequence of that choice is that
many other people with debilitating (but perhaps not life-threatening) illnesses
are unlikely to receive the help they need? How do you assess the relative
happiness of those concerned?
Consider the situation of an unborn child known to be seriously haidicapped
but capable of survival. Is the potential suffering of both child and parents
as a result of the severe handicap such that the child's survival does not
add to the total sum of happiness? And who could possibly make such an assessment
Further difficulties arise in a consideration of the second of these examples,
in that experimental surgical procedurescarried out today may benefit many
more patients in the future. The argument for fundamental research in the
sciences is often justified on this basis - that without it, the long-term
development of new technology will be stifled.
[See A Grayling "The Meaning of Things"]
Forms of utililarianism
So far we have considered only act utilitarianism. This makes moral
judgements on the basis of the likely consequences of particular acts. There
is also rule utilitarianism, which considers the overall benefit that
will be gained by society if a particular rule is accepted. In other words,
breaking a rule may benefit the individual concerned, but allowing that
rule to be broken may itself have harmful consequences for society as a
whole. This was a form of utilitarianism put forward by Mill. There are
two forms of rule utilitirianism: strong and weak. A strong rule utilitarian
will argue that it is never right to break a rule if that rule is to the
benefit of society as a whole. A weak rule utilitarian will argue that there
may be special cases in which breaking the rule is allowed, although the
overall benefit to society of not doing so should also be taken into
consideration. Preference utilitarianism is based on taking the
preferences of all those who are involved into account. (In other words,
the basis on which the 'good' is to be assessed in a particular situalion
is not impersonal, but takes into account the views and wishes of all concerned.
In October 1994 the British government launched a campaign to vaccinateall
children against rubella. This caused problems for Catholics,since the rubella
vaccine was originally developed from a dead foetus. The ethical arguments
show the clash between 'natural law' and utilitarian concerns. At first,
two Catholic schools opted out of vaccination on the grounds that:
'Absolute respect for human life requires the condemnation of
direct abortion and a refusal to benefit from the products of an evil action.'
In other words, if the original abortion were in itself wrong, then no amount
of good coming from it subsequently can make it right. If a person knowingly
benefits from something that is wrong, he or she appears to be condoning
The Catholic Bishops then gave parents a free choice, allowing
that some would want to take a prophetic stand against abortion, but adding
that 'Catholic parents who wish to consent to its use can be assured that
there is no general obligation to refuse permission.. Consenting does not
condone abortion nor amount to encouraging further abortions for this vaccine.
In other words, if you benefit from a result of an action, that does not
in itself imply that you approve of that action.
A spokesman for one of the schools which refused the vaccine
to boys, nevertheless accepted that it could be given to girls, because of
the danger that rubella during pregnancy can lead to blindness and brain
damage in the child.
Here the form of argument seems to have switched to a utilitarian one. In
fact, it is possible to argue that the refusal to accept the vaccine could
also be justified on utilitarian grounds if it is believed that, as a rule,
the opposition to abortion will produce greater benefits than the avoidance
This example illustrates the fact that, although for the purpose of ethics
we tend to separate off the different forms of argument, when dealing with
actual moral issues both arguments may be used, and the moral judgement is
a matter of balancing their competing claims. There is seldom a straight
choice,and wishing to avoid rubella is not the same thing as approving of
Both utilitarianism and natural law appear to give rational and objective
bases for deciding between right and wrong. Both of them, however, have
presuppositions which are not accounted for by the theory itself. The one
depends on the idea of a rational firial cause, the other on the acceptance
of happiness as the highest good.
The categorical imperative
We have akeady looked at the work of the 18th century German philosopher
Kant, in connection with the radical distinction he made between things as
we perceive them and things as they are in themselves, and the categories
of space, time
and causality by which we interpret
our experience. But Kant also made an important contribution in the field
of ethics. He sought to formulate a general and universally applicable principle
by which the pure practical reason could distinguish right from wrong.
He started with the fact that people have a sense of moral obligition. We
know what it is to sense that there is something we ought to do, irrespective
of the consequences. He argued that such an obligation presupposed three
Freedom: i.e. a person needs to be free in himself or herself,
even if he or she appears conditioned from the standpoint of an external
God: for otherwise there would be no guarantee that doing what
was right (virtue) would ultimately lead to happiness (i.e. that virtue and
happiness come together in the 'highest good').
Immortality: for even if doing right were to lead to the highest
good, this might not be possible within the span of a single human life (e.g.
if someone gives his or her life to save another).
Notice that Kant did not think that a person would first come to a rational
acceptance of God, freedom and immortality and then decide to be moral. Rather,
by acting morally, even by feeling a sense of moral obligation, a person
(consciously or unconsciously) displays a belief in these three things. Such
a sense of absolute moral obligation is termed the categorical
imperative (as opposed to a 'hypothetical' imperative, which says what
you need to do in order to achieve some chosen result), and Kant's aim was
to express the categorical imperative in the form of universal principles
Kant expressed the categorical imperative in various ways, but it amounts
Act only on that maxim (or principle) which you can - at the same tlme
- will that it should become a universal law.
To this he added a second principle:
Act in such away as to treat people as ends and never as means.
The first of these amounts to the principle that whatever one
wishes to do, one should be prepared for everyone else to do it as well.
If you cannot wish that your action should become a universal rule, then
you should not do it in your individual circumstances.
Here you have the most general of all principles, and one which, on the surface,
has a long pedigree. It follows from the golden rule -to do to others only
that which you would wish them to do to you. One problem with this is that
there may be circumstances in which a person may want to kill or lie, without
wishing for killing or lying to become universal.
Suppose, for example, that the life of an innocent person is being threatened,
and the only way of saving him or her is by lying, then a person would wish
to do so. In this case, following Kant's argument, one would need to argue
that you could wish that anyone in an identical situation should
be free to lie,without thereby willing that anyone in any situation
should be free to do so.
An article entitled 'Kant on Welfare' (Canadian Journal of Philosophy,
June 1 999), by Mark LeBar of the University of Ohio, illustrates the problem
of applying Kant's universal principle that people should be treated as ends
rather than means. It opens:
Contemporary debate over public welfare policy is often cast in Kantian terms.
It is argued, for example, that respect for the dignity of the poor requires
public aid, or that respect for their autonomy forbids it.
This is a perfect example of where a general principle is not enough to establish
whether the one or the other approach is morally right. We know what we might
want in theory, what we do not know is the practical steps that are needed
to achieve it; but it is in facing those practical steps that we are confronted
with moral dilemmas.
In other words
Natural law, the assessment of results, and the sense of moral obligation:
these three (sometimes singly, sometimes mixed together) form the basis of
ethical argument. Natural law and a sense of moral obligation, usually lead
to the framing of general moral principles: that this or that sort of action
is right or wrong. It is quite another matter whether it is fair to apply
any such general rule to each and every situation. By the same token, the
utilitarian assessment of results, although apparently more immediately
practical, is always open to the ambiguity of fate, for we never really know
the long-term consequences of what we do.
The absolute versus the relative in morality
If morality is absolute, then a particular action may be
'considered wrong no matter what the circumstances. So, for example, theft
may be considered to be wrong. But what is theft? In one sense, the definition
is straightforward: theft is the action of taking what belongs to another
without that person's consent. The problem is that 'theft' is a term that
may be used to interpret individual situations. Can we always be sure that
it is the right term? If not, then is it right to treat an action as morally
equal to 'theft', if that is not the way one or more of the people concerned
see the matter.
One example of this dilemma might be 'mercy killing', where sorneone who
is seriously ill and facing the prospect of a painful or lingering death
is helped to die by a relative or close friend. If you take a view that there
are moral absolutes, you may say: 'Murder is always wrong.' The next question
then becomes: 'Is mercy killing the same thing as murder?' In other words,
you start with absolute moral principles and then assess each particular
situation in terms of which of these moral principles are involved (a process
that is generally termed casuistry).
If you do not think that there are moral absolutes, you are more likely to
start with particular situations and assess the intentions and consequences
involved. In making such an assessment you bring to bear your general views
about life and of the implications that various actions have on society as
One approach to Christian morality which emphasises the uniqueness of events
is situation ethics. Joseph Fletcher published his book Situation
Ethics in 1966 and it became part of a reaction against the perceived
narrowness of traditional Christian morality at a time of rapid social
change. He argued that his view represented a fundamental feature of the
Christian approach to life, as seen in the emphasis on
love in I Corinthians, the rejection
of Jewish legalism, or St Augustine's view that if you love, what you want
to do will be right.
Situation ethics argued that in any situation, one should do whatever was
the most loving thing, and that this might well require the setting aside
of conventional moral rule or going against the expectations of society.
Although critics from a traditional position tended to accuse such an approach
of leading to moral anarchy, it was a genuine attempt to combine an overall
moral principle (love) with a recognition of the uniqueness of every situation.
To illustrate the complexities of applying general rules of particular
situations, let us take one actual example of what is generally known as
'date rape'. This is the term used when a charge of rape is made against
a person known to the 'victim' and carried out in the course of a date. Date
rape is a good example of the ambiguities that arise in legal and moral debates,
since any straightforward description of the situation (sexual intercourse
against the will of one partner - or, in the particular case we shall be
examining, attempted intercourse) is made more complicated by the circumstances
in which it takes place, namely that the two people involved have chosen
to be together socially.
A solicitor took a colleague to a ball at a London hotel. Each had assumptions
about the nature of the relationship between them that was established by
his inviting her to the ball and her accepting that invitation. She made
a complaint against him, and he was charged with attempted rape. According
to a newspaper report, he committed the offence after a night of dancing
reels and drinking whisky and champagne with his 'victim', known throughout
the trial as Miss X. She invited him to share a room with her at a friend's
flat, undressed in front of him, and fell asleep. She awoke to find him allegedly
on top of her, wearing only his frilly cuffs and a green condom.
A newspaper report presented the argument that Miss X, by undressing down
to her knickers in' full view of a man with whom she had spent the evening,
was behaving foolishly and should therefore accept some responsibility for
At the trial, the solicitor was found guilty of attempted rape and sentenced
to three years in prison, later reduced to two years on appeal. He was released
after serving half this sentence, on grounds of good conduct, but (at the
time of his release) it was anticipated that he would face a disciplinary
hearing before the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau, with a good chance that
he would be prevented from continuing his legal career.
There are various matters that should be taken into consideration
in the defence of a person charged with attempted rape in these circumstances:
If one person invites another to share a room, is that invitation
to be taken as at least implying that the idea of having some sort of sexual
relationship is not out of the question (i.e. the invitation to share a room
might not be a direct invitation to have sex, but might it not suggest that
the matter is at least a possibility?).
Does an act of sexual intercourse between two people who have
voluntarily shared some time together (i.e. on a 'date') require a specific
act of verbal consent?
If no specific verbal or written consent is given (i.e. there
is no exchange of contracts before clothes are removed - even between
solicitors!) does a misinterpretation of the situation by one party constitute
rape or attempted rape?
Consider another possibility. if a woman were to invite a man
back to her room after such an evening, hoping for sex (and under the impression
that he was willing), but the man - perhaps because of an excess of whisky
- were to fall asleep on the sofa, could she take a civil action against
him for breach of implied promise?
In such circumstances, is the action 'rape' or simply the result
Can the act of undressing before another person be considered
'contributory negligence' if a rape or attempted rape ensues?
Contrariwise, a person bringing the charge of date rape could argue:
Rape, violence and other forms of abuse often take place between
people who know one another. The fact of their previous relationship does
not lessen the seriousness of the action that takes place, or that is threatened.
There can be no objective proof of misunderstanding. Claiming
that you misunderstood something may be a later rationale of the situation,
or an excuse.
The problem for ethics is that a unique situation may be understood in many
different ways. The words chosen (for example, attempted rape) interpret,
rather than describe, the event. Even if it were agreed that rape is always
morally wrong, there remains the problem of deciding exactly when that term
should be used. Hence there may need to be flexibility, even within a framework
of absolute moral values.
That said, allowing each event to determine its own rules is likely to load
to moral and social chaos. As with so many issues in philosophy, the problem
here is to know how the particular is related to the universal.
Values and society
So far in this chapter we have been looking primarily at situations
of individual moral choice, and the values and principles by which they can
be interpreted. But there are other ways of approaching ethical issues. One
can look at the personal qualities and virtues that would lead a person to
be called 'good', and then examine what actions and choices might follow
from a cultivation of those qualities. Alternatively, one can start from
society as a whole and look at the sorts of agreements that need to be made
between people, and the rights and responsibilities that living in society
entails. We shall see that these approaches may be underpinned by elements
of natural law, utilitarian, or absolutist moral views -which is why they
follow on naturally from those basic approaches akeady outlined.
Rather than looking at actions, and asking if they are right and wrong, one
could start by asking the basic questions 'What does it mean to be a "good"
person?', and develop this to explore the qualities and virtues that make
up the 'good' life. This approach had been taken first by Aristotle who linked
the displaying of certain qualities with the final end or purpose of life.
As it developed in the 1950s, this approach appealed to feminist thinkers,
who considered the traditional ethical arguments to have been influenced
by particularly male ways of approaching life, based on rights and duties,
whereas they sought a more 'ferninine' approach and a recognition of the
value of relationships and intimacy.
Virtue ethics was also seen as naturalistic, in that it moved away from the
idea of simply obeying rules, to an appreciation of how one might express
one's own fundamental nature, and thus fulfil one's potential as a human
Virtue ethics raises some basic questions:
Do we have a fixed essence? Are there, particular masculine
or feminine qualities that give rise to virtues appropriate to each sex?
Or is our nature the product of our surroundings and upbringing?
If our nature has been shaped by factors over which we have
no control (e.g. the culture into which we have been born; traumatic experiences
in childhood) are we responsible for our actions?
How should we relate the expression of an individual's virtues
to the actual needs of society?
How are you able to decide between different ways of expressing
the same virtue? For example, a sense of love and compassion might lead one
person to help someone who is seriously ill person to die, yet another might
find that ldve and compassion lead them to struggle to keep that same person
alive. In some way, you need to fall back on other ethical theories if you
want to assess the actions that spring from particular virtues.
Notice that, beneath some of these 'virtue ethics' approaches lie the basic
questions raised by Aristotle about the end or purpose of human life. Whereas
'natural law' generally examines an action in terms of its 'final cause',
virtue ethics examines human qualities in terms of their overall place within
human life, and the appropriate ways in which they may be expressed.
Ethical theories based on social contract look at the agreements that
are made between people to abide by certain rules, and limit what they are
able to do, in order to benefit both themselves and society as a whole. Most
accept some compromise between the freedom of the individual and the overall
good of society and the need for security.
Social contract theories apportion responsibilities to individuals and to
the mechanisms of government by which society is orgarised. In other words,
they set out what can reasonably be expectd of people in terms of their
relationship with others. They also set out the rights to which
individuala are entitled. Many areas of applied ethics have focused on rights
and responsibilities, especially in the area of professional conduct. For
example, they might ask what responsibility a doctor has to his patients,
to the sociey within which he or she practises, and to the development of
medicine - and from this a code of professional conduct can be drawn up.
Equally, it can ask what the basic expectations a person should have in terms
of the way in which he or she should be treated by other people or by the
state. This has led to various declarations of human rights, which provide
a touchstone for whether a society is behaving justly.
Although rights and responsibilities are key features of ethical debale,
they also feature in political philosophy, since they follow from questions
about justice and the right ordering of society (see Chapter 7).
Discussion of rights and responsibilities tends to reflect both absolutist
views as, for example, in claiming that people should enjoy basic human rights,
irrespective of who they are -and also utilitarian ones, in that the benefits
that rnight~come fro]n agreements about people's responsibilities in society
are oftcn assessed in terms of the overall happiness of society.
Throughout history, philosophers have sought to apply their ideas, and this
has been most obvious in the field of ethics. Applied ethics flourished during
the last three decades of the 20th century, after a number of years during
which it had been rather overshadowed by linguistic questions about the meaning
and nature of ethical statements.
There is no scope in an introductory text of this sort to do more than point
to some of the major areas within which ethics is applied today, but those
interested in following up this aspect of ethics will find that there are
a huge number of books covering the different professions and issues.
Professional ethics has been concerned principally with standards of conduct
expected of members of the professions and also with drawing up guidelines
for those situations where there are difficult moral choices to be made.
The medical, nursing and legal professions most obviously provide a whole
range of moral dilemmas that need to be examined. But other areas of life,
for example media ethics, the influence of information technology, or the
implications of genetic manipulation, have thrown up issues of concern to
everyone. Such applied ethics is relevant both to those working in the particular
fields and also to the public at large, since the influence of the media,
or the introduction of
food, or the pollution of the environment, affects everyone.
Two important areas of development within applied ethics are environmental
ethics and business ethics Sometimes the two come together as, for example,
in the issue of genetically modified food. Here we have issues aboutthe effect
of genetically modified (GM) crop or other species and the environment as
a whole, combined with a critique of the freedom of international business
organisations to seek to make profits without reference to the wider implications
of their activities. During 1999, public unease about the use of GM ingredients
in food led to a slump in sales of GM foods, and consequently a drop in profits
for manufacturers. Should issues like these be determined by 'market forces'?
What are the responsibilities of multinational companies? Humankind has always
modified its environment in order to develop - think of the massive changes
brought about by the development of agriculture,
compared with the nomadic existence of hunter gatherers. What theoretical
limits (if any) should be placed on this? If people seek increased conmption
- of food, or housing, or travel - are those companies that seek to meet
that demand, by manufacturing processed food, building new houses, or turning
out more and more motor cars, morally liable for any environmental consequences,
or does responsibility for that lie with the general public and their
expectations of a certain lifestyle?
Ethics is a huge subject, both in terms of the range of ethical theories
and the way in which these may be applied to moral and social issues. It
has provided the impetus for much work in philosophy as a whole, and is the
single largest area of study within departments of philosophy (judging
by the number of papers published). It is particularly valuable as an area
of philosophical study, since the benefits of clear talking, analysis and
the clarification of concepts and presuppositions, can be seen to have immediate
relevance to practical areas of life.
Faced with the dilemma of whether or not to turn off the lifesupport machine
of someone in a deep coma and unable to recover, one starts to ask not just
about the ethical status of euthanasia, but also what it means to be a human
being, what constitutes human life, and therefore whether the person whose
body is being maintained by a machine can be said to be living in any meaningful
For further treatment of some of these issues see Teach Yourself Ethics
in this series. But readers wanting to examine the ethical issues in particular
professions should move on to the very extensive literature now available
in this area.