Morals and Ethics



Almost every philosophy book, or at least the ones that deal with the whole of philosophy, has a section on morals and ethics. I’ve always been suspicious of such chapters as the topic seems to me to be a little vague, even for philosophy.

I saw a news report about a group of people who, at some risk to themselves, formed a human chain to rescue a boy in trouble in the sea. I asked the question “Would you have risked your life, like these people did to save the boy’s life or would you merely stand and watch?” Some of rescuers, notably the policemen who initially formed the chain, had to be helped out of the sea themselves.

I realised that I’d asked an unanswerable question. It very much depends on the circumstances. If you sincerely thought that your “help” would merely hinder the rescue, or if you sufferred from a medical condition such as a heart problem, then you would merely watch the rescue, no doubt willing the rescuers on. If you were fit and healthy and no other issues prevented you, you would no doubt take part, almost instinctively.

English: Hungarian Medal for Bravery

It strikes me from the above that morals and ethics don’t have any absolutes. There is no situation where it is completely obvious what the right course is. Should you kill one person to save a million? There is a school of thought called “Utilitarianism”, {link:} suggests that the best way to decide would be to consider the options and choose the that “maximizes utility, specifically defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering” (See the above link).



The trouble with this approach is that no two people would agree on the calculations involved. What if the person who is to be killed is your son or daughter? What is the situation were slightly less clear? Should a killer be put to death to protect his potential future victims?

Death Row

Some people introduce deities to provide an absolute basis for ethics and morals, but this merely shifts the question to deity – how does the deity provide moral and ethical direction? The question is no longer “What should I do?” but “What would God want me to do?” The believer has to make subjective moral judgements about the way that God would want morals to work. The believer is in fact no further on.

Moses receives the Tablets of the Law, and hea...

This seems to reduce morals and ethics to subjective opinions, a view known as “Relativism”. The religious view is that God (or whatever the deity is being called) sets the absolutes, so there can be no moral relativism. The difficulty with this view is that we are no further along in determining the absolutes if they are absolutes. It seems that different deities have different absolutes, and the same deity’s “absolutes” may change over time – the morals and ethics of earlier times is different to the morals and ethics of earlier times. For example slavery was OK at one time but is not OK today. In any a special class of people has evolved whose whole life is based on the need for the deities views to be defined and interpreted.

I’d suggest that most people treat moral and ethical matters more or less pragmatically, depending on their culture and upbringing. Those who are not on the breadline tend to consider that accepting an unemployment benefit or other benefit is somehow not morally correct while those without jobs are happy to claim them. If someone on a benefit were to suddenly become rich, and a rich person become desititute then they would get an idea of each other’s viewpoint. I’d suggest that the erstwhile rich person would accept the dole with reluctance, and their moral qualms would subside and the reverse would happen to the suddenly enriched beneficiary, who might come to feel that those on benefits are getting too much of his money. Hopefully the enriched beneficiary would have a more enlightened view than the erstwhile rich person had, though, having actually been a beneficiary at one time.

Huts and unemployed, West Houston and Mercer S...

While researching on the Internet on this topic, I came across this set of articles about morality and the brain {Link:} They are worth a look. One of the points is that the emotional side of the brain makes a decision, maybe about the killing of a child to save many, and the rational side tries to figure out why the emotional side made the decision. Maybe the discussion is pointless. Maybe most moral decisions made in the heat of the moment are made emotionally and all discussions on what the correct course should be are post-decision rationalizations. If that is so, then there is no real point in discussing what is right and moral as rational decisions do not come into it. But then again, maybe such decisions inform and incline the emotional side of the brain when it makes a decision. Maybe that’s what makes discsussion of moral and ethics topics in philosophy seem so fuzzy and unsatisfactory to me.

reason, conclusion - emotion, action

reason, conclusion – emotion, action (Photo credit: Will Lion)

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2 Responses to Morals and Ethics

  1. Interesting post. I think you may be underestimating the “anchoring” function of theism. Despite the fact that there is still an epistemic question – how do I know what God wants – there is nonetheless an external and objective reference point by which you are trying to determine ethical mores. So unless we go to an extreme (and useless) skepticism and say that we can’t know whether or not other people’s subjective experiences are similar to our own, we can say that multiple vantage points of the same external reference point (God) gives us a better sense for moral guidelines than just guessing.

  2. I can’t see why you relate “an external and objective reference point” and “other people’s subjective experiences” to the “same external reference point (God)”. The external reference point seems to me to equate with the thing we call “reality”, and other people’s subjective experiences are their views of the external reality. You seem to make a big jump and call this external reality “God”. Have I got this correct?

    I don’t know if other peoples’ subjective experience is similar to mine. I’ve no data to determine that. All I know is that my subjective experience is that what they say is their subjective experience (taste, smells, sights) appear to agree with mine in most cases and any differences may be idiosyncratic, ie they like sweet potato, I don’t. But for a number of reasons (androids and golems being one of them) I doubt it.

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