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 reason!
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 a machine.
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 ourselves.

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 disposition.

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, for example.

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.

For reflection
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 justified?

Descriptive ethics
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
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 shortly.
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 makes them?
  • 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 is used.
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 speaker.

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 turn.

Natural law
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 of life.

  • 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

For reflection
  • Is it possible for something to be natural but wrong?
  • 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 of hedonism.
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 objectively?

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.

A situation
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 it.
  • 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 of rubella.
    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 abortion.

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 things:

  • 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 observer.
  • 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 of morality.
Kant expressed the categorical imperative in various ways, but it amounts to this:
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 example
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 a whole.
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.

An example
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 what followed.
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 of misunderstanding?
  • 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.

Virtue ethics
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 being.
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.

Social contract
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.

Applied ethics

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 genetically modified food, or the pollution of the environment, affects everyone.

An example
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 way.
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.

Science Without Bounds

How are religious values - rules, rituals, and morals - determined? What are they based on? Religions often derive their morals and rules of conduct in a bottom-up manner. In a bottom-up approach to morals we begin with the practical rules of conduct called morals and then figure out the implied ethics, values and world view. We start with morals and derive the rest. But where do the morals come from in the first place? Usually, from some God who is a Person. Bottom-up approaches are common to systems where morals are simply the will - the commands - of some God who is a Person, or the dictates of some impersonal entity such as Reason or Natural Law. To act in accordance with God's (or Nature's) will is to act morally. To act otherwise offends God, and therefore is immoral and sinful. Knowing what is moral and what is not - i.e., knowing God's will - isn't a problem since there are scriptures and established churches to make it known.
One problem which does arise, however, is the following: is God free to will anything at all into rightness or wrongness? or are there standards of right and wrong even God must respect? In other words, is something wrong simply because God happens to forbid it? or does God forbid it because it's already wrong, harmful or evil? Suppose we choose the first alternative and define "good" as whatever God wills. Then saying "God is always good" is merely a tautology - it's true by definition, just as if we define "dozen" to mean twelve, and then say "a dozen always had twelve things." It's true, but has little significance. It's just a kind of game with words. Moreover, if whatever God wills is good, then war, murder, sadism, torture, and rape are good when God wills them.
You may feel that God never actually does will war, murder, sadism, torture, and rape. The millions throughout history who have fought holy wars, burnt heretics, and conducted inquisitions, however, would disagree. Some of them sincerely believed they were doing God's will. Didn't the invading armies of Europe's "holy" crusades and the religious leaders who organized it shout "God wills it"? On the other hand suppose we choose the second alternative and decide there are certain standards of right and wrong which even God must respect. Then God can will only what is already inherently good. In this case, God seems the discoverer of good rather than its creator. How can such a God be omnipotent? So is anything God wills good, or can God only will what's already good? It's a dilemma that's more theoretical than practical since regardless of the answer, right and wrong are forever etched into sacred scriptures in a bottom-up moral system. All a believer need do is follow them, with no explanation or justification needed or given. For example, in Exodus Yahweh commands (Ex 20:1-17) the Israelites to obey the Ten Commandments. They are to blindly follow what Yahweh commands because Yahweh commands it. With no explanation. Another question which arises in a bottom-up moral system is the following: if moral principles really are the dictates of some universal God (or Reason or Natural Law) then they should be universal too.

But cultures have different, sometimes vastly different, morals. The following retells a story found in the History of Herodotus. Darius . . . found . . . the Callatians . . . customarily ate the bodies of their dead fathers. . . . [T]he Greeks practiced cremation . . . One day . . . he summoned some Greeks . . . and asked them what they would take to eat the bodies of their dead fathers. They were shocked . . . and replied that no amount of money could persuade them to do such a thing. Then Darius called in some Callatians, and . . . asked them what they would take to burn their dead fathers' bodies. They Callatians were horrified and told Darius not even to mention such a dreadful thing. Why do moral codes differ? An unassuming solution is that all moral codes are imperfect and still struggling toward the one, objective, true moral code. A more common answer says that one's own existing moral code perfectly embodies the true, objective, universal moral code, and all other moral codes are wrong. Another solution is that there is no single perfect moral code. What one calls sin, another may call virtue. If so, then morals are subjective, either to individual persons or to whole societies. Things are good or evil according to society's or the individual's taste. There are obvious problems with this approach. Many people feel the murder of innocents, the genocide of entire ethnic groups, sadism, etc., are objectively and universally wrong, not merely not to "taste."

Related Articles

Shadows of the Mind

On the naturalness of things

The Emperor's New Mind

Theological Implications of Chaos

The Philosophy of Sex

The evolutionary engine and the mind machine

The Philosophy of Trust

Metahuman Science

The Spirit of Complexity

AI and Holism

Mind/Body Dualism

Sheldrake and Implicate Order

Predictive Deduction

The Philosophy of Being Pt1 Pt2