An introduction to ethics

Humans have long had a concept of what it means to act in a moral way, whether that be using their own internal moral compass or cohering to the accepted morality of the society in which they happen to live.

One need look only as far as the Hebrew bible to find some of the earliest moral principles still within the cultural consciousness, the book of Exodus for example outlines Moses’ ten commandments, many of these are still universally accepted today and can be found in the contemporary legal system. However, it seems unreasonable – if not outright preposterous, to equate law to morality. Adultery is not illegal, however most consider it to be immoral; similarly, those who hid Jews from the Gestapo in the Third Reich were criminals, freeing slaves on an Alabama plantation was once illegal, and marital rape was not considered a prosecutable offence until 1991 (R. v R 1991). It may be a point of interest what judicial and legislative oversights future generations will judge us upon.

Law attempts to correspond to the values of a society but as demonstrated above can often fall short and allow for indefensible wrongs. Where then should we seek our moral guidance? Religion is often seen as a source of comfort in times of ethical dilemma. It prescribes a solution to some of humanity’s most common crises, but as is clear to any serious scholar of religion, seldom to adherents take their value from the text – more often do people insert their own value into them. Peter Sutcliffe was raised Catholic and famously believed it was God that told him to murder young women. Existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche reject the notion of religious ethics, as they place one into an all-encompassing system, and denies the individual as they are consigned to simply ‘one of the flock’. This critique assumes that morality is not universal, and that ethical theories that rely on the metaphysical Good and Evil cannot be correct. In a society that is becoming more critical of religious truth claims and adopting a post-modern attitude to truth and morals, how is one supposed to know right from wrong without a system to ground themselves in reality? Kant was so committed to the notion of moral absolutism he put forth as a maxim that if an act is wrong in one situation it is always wrong. This means we can never, under any circumstances lie, steal, or kill; is this a reasonable position to take? Consider any situations in which an act can be immoral in one instance but not in another. Also, ponder whether we would have a more moral world if all humankind strictly adhered to this principle.

The final aspect this brief tour of ethics will examine is the question of whether actions independent of their consequence are moral, or if ethics should be judged solely upon the outcomes. This is known as deontology vs consequentialism. Kant is a prime example of a deontologist, his maxims set out all centre on taking actions in isolation, for example that people are always to be seen as an ends and never a means. Kant wanted his moral philosophy to create order, which this system certainly does. However, Kant lived an isolated life, he never strayed far from his birthplace in Königsberg. He was born in a context that would rarely face such complex moral issues as the world would have to come to terms with in the 20th century. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced such a conundrum as Lutheran pastor living in the Third Reich.

If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.

-        Bonhoeffer, Ethics.

We see here, that painful as the decision may have been, there is at least some moral ambiguity in Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the July plot.

The alternative theory is consequentialism, best summarised by Machiavelli – “the ends justifies the means.” A prime example of this is utilitarianism, put simply, the greatest good for the greatest number. This theory is simple but opens up the possibility of justifying any number of abhorrent behaviours for what the actor assumes will be the outcome.

As an aid to this distinction see the well-known trolley case below.

Here, you are by a switch. A speeding train is heading towards five people, you can turn the switch which would kill only one person, but the action of pulling the switch places the agency directly on you. Which would you choose?

Most say that in the basic problem outlined above they would turn the switch. However, alter some of the variables and it becomes more complex. Would it matter who the people on the tracks are? Would it matter if, instead of a person on the second track it was a vial containing the cure for a deadly disease? Finally, what if, instead of pulling the switch changing the tracks you had the choice of letting the train kill the five, or by pushing one person into the path of the oncoming train you could halt it, saving the five? In some of these alternative scenarios the nuances of deontology or consequentialism is clarified.

This article was written by Dane Harrison


Further reading

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.

Bonhoeffer, D. Ethics.

Kant, I. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.

Mackie, J. L. Ethics, Inventing right and wrong. 

Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil.