Ethical Issues

"Ethics" is the name of a branch of philosophy, which is the attempt to answer the most fundamental questions of human life by means of reason alone, rather than faith or tradition. Ethics is the continuing effort on the part of the human race to rationally analyze and evaluate the principles and ideals that might help us to understand which ways of life are most admirable and worth living, and which actions are right or wrong.

Some ethical theories are very complicated and subtle, but they are attempts to settle issues that we all think about at some time or other. Usually, when we do think about these issues it is because we find ourselves faced with a tough decision.

For example: Alice knows that her friend, Max, has been using a dangerous drug. She has tried to persuade him to stop, but he doesn't seem to listen. She has begun to wonder if she should tell someone what he is doing, someone with authority who might make him stop. To some people confronting such a choice, it would be obvious what they should do: they would simply go ahead and do it, either informing on Max or keeping quiet. If Alice is like most people, though, she will have conflicting thoughts. If she tells somebody, she would be violating her friend's trust in her. Max never would have let her know his guilty secret if he had thought she would use it to get him into serious trouble. On the other hand, it might be best for him in the long run if she breaks her obligation to respect her friend's trust by telling what she knows.

Alice's choice is a difficult one because she has more than one idea about what she should do, and these ideas lead her in opposite directions. Like the ethical theorist, Alice is thinking about what is the right thing to do. There is a difference between them, though, and the difference is not that Alice has only a few ideas while the philosopher has many. Some philosophers would say that Alice actually has too many ideas. They would say that some of the things she is thinking about are really irrelevant to the question of what she should do. What ethics does is to introduce order into the way people think about life and action. Often this means replacing the vast confusion of everyday ideas with one beautifully simple theory.

For the most part, ethical theory aims to bring order into ordinary thinking by telling us which our ideas are really relevant to what we should do, and which ones should be ignored.

Ancient Ethics

This, however, was not always true. Before the year 1500 many ethical theorists were followers of the Ancient Greek philosophers, especially Plato (427-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). These two powerfully influential thinkers tried to bring some order into our thinking about the problems of ethics by outlining their conception of the way of life that is worth living, and of the sort of person who can live such a life.

We can understand what such a person would be like, they thought, by understanding the good traits of character, or "virtues," that such a person would possess. Plato thought there are four virtues: 1) wisdom, 2) courage, 3) temperance or self-control, and 4) justice. The most important of these is wisdom, which is one's knowledge of what is truly good. If you have wisdom, you will be in harmony with yourself, and this harmony is what justice really is. Further, if you have justice, you will have the other virtues as well. Plato did not try to tell us, in a neat and easy to follow formula, what is truly good. Instead, he wrote many books in which he described the life and death of one man who, he believed, did understand what is truly good: his teacher, Socrates (d. 399 B.C.).

Plato's student, Aristotle, had views that were similar to his, except that they were more complicated. Aristotle disliked oversimplification and, though he recognized the four virtues named by Plato, he discussed a number of others that he considered to be important, including generosity, magnanimity, gentleness, friendliness, truthfulness, and wit. Like Plato, he thought there is a trait that is the source of all the other virtues, but he called it "prudence" or "good judgement" (phronesis). Prudence is the ability to know what one should do. We find out what we should do by figuring out which of the courses of action we might take would lead to a good life. Aristotle tells us a great deal about what the good life is like. He says that it involves such things as having friends, acting justly, and participating in community affairs. However, like Plato, he did not say much that is very specific about which courses of action are right and which are wrong. People who are properly brought up and make full use of their own minds will, he thought, usually discern the right course and take it.

Neither Plato nor Aristotle seem to be offering advice to people who, like Alice, are facing a tough decision and do not find the solution obvious. Perhaps in those days life was much simpler than it is now, and people seldom felt they faced critical decisions, in which clashing ideas pull in opposite directions. Or perhaps, when they sat back and theorized about life, such moments seemed atypical to them, too abnormal to have an important place in one's picture of what life is like. It is true, after all, that even in a complex society like our own, in which a multitude of conflicting traditions and theories compete for our loyalties, most of life, normal life, is not a series of crises.

One thing, though, that we can be rather sure of is that ancient ethics does not try to provide rules to guide us in making difficult choices, while modern ethics (that is, ethics beginning around 1500) does. Ancient ethics is a theory of normal life, while modern ethics, by comparison, is a theory of life in crisis. It aims at sorting out the conflicting reasons for different courses of action that come into our heads when we face difficult decisions, declaring which reasons are more important or fundamental and which are less important or, indeed, not good reasons at all.

Modern Ethics

When someone, like Alice, is facing a critical moment and wavers between different courses of action they think of reasons for different things they might do. Many modern thinkers have noticed that the ideas that come into our heads at such moments can be sorted out into different kinds of reasons. On the one hand, Alice thinks of an obligation she has toward Max to keep quiet about what he does. On the other hand, she thinks of benefits that might flow (to him) if she violates this obligation by speaking up. Of course, if the situation were somewhat different, she might think of an obligation to speak up (maybe she promised her mother to tell her if any of her friends use drugs) and benefits that might flow from silence (she and Max are more likely to remain friends if she keeps quiet). The point is, though, that thinking about what your obligations are and thinking about what is beneficial to people are very different things. If you stick to a policy of taking one of these sorts of ideas very seriously, you are going to make very different sorts of decisions than you would have made if you had committed yourself to the other sort of idea.

One of the conclusions that theorists have reached after centuries of thinking about the conflicts among our moral ideas is that it is very difficult to put together a theory of how decisions should be made that gives equal importance to both obligations and to benefits. Modern ethical theory is roughly divided into two schools of thought. One of them, called "deontology," claims that what really matters, as far as ethics is concerned, is what your obligations are, and that this is something that does not depend on the question of what is beneficial to anyone. The other, called "teleology," claims on the contrary that what really matters is precisely the issue of which actions or policies would be beneficial to people.

The greatest deontologist was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He believed that the only test of whether a decision is right or wrong is whether you could consistently apply your decision to everyone else. Would it be alright for everyone to do what you are doing? If not, your decision is wrong. It is wrong to make a promise that you intend to break because, if everyone did that, no one would believe anyone else's promises and, as a result, no one would bother to make promises at all. Using this test, Kant would probably say that Alice actually does not have an obligation to keep quiet about Max's experiments with drugs. She probably could accept the notion that people can tell what they know about the wrongdoing of others, especially if she is not planning to do anything wrong herself.

Kant thought that the difference between right or wrong is simply a matter of consistency: can you say the same thing about others that you say about yourself? Whether your decisions are useful, whether they bring about desireable results for yourself or anyone else, is simply irrelevant. Against this, teleologists have often pointed out that, in a way, most moral rules are actually very useful. Rules against murder and theft serve to protect your interests. If there were no such rules, you would be faced with a constant threat of violent injury and death.

Moral rules protect you against misery and chaos, and it is hard to imagine how anything could be more useful than that. Teleologists have sometimes asked what someone like Kant would say if were proven that some moral rule that they believe in actually makes people unhappy and does nobody any good at all. They would immediately decide that the rule is a bad one. The reason is, these teleologists say, that deontologists are like everyone else: in spite of their theories, what matters in the last analysis is what is beneficial or useful.

The most influential teleologists are the "utilitarians," including Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). They claim that the test of whether a policy or action is the right one is whether or not it brings happiness or satisfaction to society as a whole. We should have rules against murder and stealing simply because, even though they frustrate the plans of thieves and murderers, most people are much happier than they would be without such rules.

John Stuart Mill argued that the code of rules that is best for humanity as a whole is one that prevents people from harming one another but otherwise lets them do what they want. People are happiest if they develop their ability to make choices and learn from their mistakes, provided they harm no one but themselves. He might even tell Alice that she should think again about how "beneficial" it would be for Max if she were to inform on him. At least if he has the reasoning capacities that adults have, being forced by some authority to do what he does not want to do would probably cause more harm than good.

According to Mill, we will only reach our full potential for happiness if society and the government are organized in a way that allows individuals to pursue their own experiments in living.

On the other hand, followers of Kant have sometimes asked what Mill would do if someone convinced him that people would actually experience the most contented satisfaction if they were ruled by scientific masterminds who "programmed" them to want things they scientifically "should" want and made them utterly unable to make their own choices. Of course Mill would find such a system horrifying. But this only shows, they say, that even for Mill there is something that is more important than satisfaction or happiness: namely, the dignity people have as rational beings who are able to grasp the moral law and make decisions based on it.

Most modern ethical theorists have been either deontologists or teleologists, but some have criticized both of these positions. The most famous of these critics was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who thought that the ideas of the ancient Greeks were closer to the truth than those of the moderns. He held that the problem that the deontologists and teleologists argued about - the problem of which particular actions are right and which are wrong - cannot be solved. There is no real difference between right and wrong. Nations and races make up their own rules to suit their own unique goals and circumstances. Like Plato and Aristotle, he thought that what really matters is virtue. His notion of what virtue is, however, was very different from theirs. For him, virtue simply means achieving more power: it does not mean adhering to some rational notion of the good life. There is no such thing as "the" good life, only a "thousand and one goals" that different people happen to pursue.


Faced with the chaotic variety of ethical theories, some people will want to ask: "But what are the answers? When will ethics ever be able to tell me how I should live and what I should really be doing?" Such questions probably ask ethics to do more than it can do. It may be that ethics can do no more than help us to make our own ideas more and more clear, more and more rational, and ever more responsive to the facts of human life as we actually live it and could live it. Ethical theory might only be able to tell Alice that her ideas will not stand up to criticism, and that she needs to develop better ones. And that might be a struggle that never ends.

Lester H. Hunt