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)

The Pope thing and predestination.

I can understand the Pope, who is old, sick, and reportedly tired of the job, resigning. I can see that it has come as a surprise to many people. What I can’t understand is the reactions that people have to the announcement. It isn’t unprecedented, as Popes have resigned before.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI

However, some people believe that the Pope is elected for life and that resigning as Benedict XVI has done is close to sacrilege. I believe that the thinking goes something like this: God has chosen a particular man to be Pope. For that man to relinquish the post is for that man to, by his actions, imply that God is mistaken, and that cannot be.

If there is a God, and I’m firmly in the other camp, then He, being omnipotent and omniscient, not to mention omni-temporal, must know that His chosen candidate will resign the post, and has arranged matters so that this happens. In other words the resignation was ordained. It seems that one cannot get away from predestination! (The above description of God ‘knowing’ and ‘arranging’ is of course anthropomorphic).

pope and me
Someone similar in appearance from the back to the Pope contemplates the works of God or nature.

Put into a religious context, the debate over predestination versus free will comes down to the following:

If God is all-seeing and all powerful then He has control over everything and nothing happens which He hasn’t caused to happen. If there were something that He hadn’t caused to happen, then that would have to (de facto) be caused externally to God. God and whatever outside of God that caused the event would have to exist in much the same sense and such an existence would have to have a frame of existence, a ‘container’ if you like, that contains both God and the other thing. However, I started out by crediting God as being all-seeing and all powerful and that doesn’t seem to leave room for things outside of God as that implies something greater than God. So given the concept of an all powerful God there can be nothing that He hasn’t caused to happen and which he does not know about.

OK, so if God causes everything, then he causes every event to happen. He (ultimately) causes us to make the particular decisions that we make. So the concept of free will evaporates, as God causes us pick the options that we do, even if we think that we make a choice.

God, the Father watches us all everywhere.
God, the Father watches us all everywhere.

Of course God may be a compatibilist – He may believe that if he presents us with a number of options, we have the free will to select an option, even though the selection is in fact predetermined by Him.

Thomas Hobbes was a classical compatibilist
Thomas Hobbes was a classical compatibilist

Of course, shorn of the religious tones, the above argument still applies, if, for example, you replace the references to God with references to ‘Nature’ or ‘the natural laws’.