Sources of Ethics & Morality

Let’s consider where morality and ethics
come from We each have a sense that some things
are right and that some things are wrong, that some things are moral and some
things are not, that in a given scenario some courses of action are moral while
others might be immoral. But where does this come from? Well, it mostly comes from
our upbringing and culture around us. When faced with a moral choice what
sources should we draw on? What logic do we use to reason? This is an important
question! Even when relying on a gut instinct we
are likely drawing (unknown to ourselves) on one or more of these sources of
morality. So where does morality come from then when faced with an ethical or
moral dilemma where do people look? Well, it turns out there are a number of
different sources: The first moral philosophy we have to
look at is supernaturalism. Supernaturalism is the view that the
source of moral rules is God. God has told us what is right and what is wrong
(typically through his prophets) and the way to live a good life is to do what
God wants. The understanding that morality comes from God is actually
quite common. However many people who believe they are following God’s rules
underestimate the role culture plays in their moral decision-making.
Similarly many people who do not believe in God at all, underestimate the role
supernaturalism has played in the shaping of the culture in which they
live. Some societies rely heavily on supernaturalism and their moral and
legal frameworks are based very much on obeying God’s rules. The legal system of
Saudi Arabia for example is based principally on obeying God’s law. In some cultures there is a view that
personal morality should be distinct from the law of the land and that the
State’s law should be separate and distinct from God’s law. The United
States and France, for example, consider the separation of Church and State to be
very important. There is even an argument to be made
that Jesus himself suggested that God’s law and the State’s law should be
separate things. We are told that Jesus said In other cultures the distinction is less pronounced. In Ireland the Catholic
Church held a special place in the constitutional framework until 1972, when
the fifth amendment of the constitution removed it. However, God still features
prominently in the constitution of Ireland. The preamble to the Constitution
clearly indicates God as the source of all moral authority: Putting aside the issue of separation of
church and state and returning to personal morality, supernaturalism still
poses some problems for individuals trying to decide what is right and what
is wrong. Even people who believe in God and want to follow his rules can encounter
difficulties. God’s Word may be lacking in specific detail enough to explain
exactly which course of action is moral. Ethical dilemmas involving new
technologies, for example, might not be specifically addressed in religious
texts. What guidance is provided might need to be interpreted and
interpretations may vary. However, the main problem with
supernaturalism as a source of moral principles is that there is not
universal agreement on who or what God is and what it is that he wants. Not all
people believe that there is a single God. Even among cultures that worship
a single God such as Judaism Christianity and Islam there is not
agreement on which concept of God is the true one and therefore there is not
agreement on what God wants. There is also the problem of people who don’t
believe in God at all. How can they behave in a moral way if they don’t
believe in God? Of course many people don’t believe in God at all and the vast
majority of them behave morally. It’s also strange that people who
don’t believe in God and people who do often agree on what is
right and what is wrong. So perhaps there’s more going on there. Perhaps
supernaturalism alone can’t explain moral choices. Moral and ethical
decisions based on supernaturalism are open to attack based on different views
of what God wants. They are especially poor at convincing those who have a
different view of God and those who don’t believe in God at all. But at the
same time it’s important to acknowledge the role supernaturalism has played and
continues to play in shaping our cultural moral and ethical landscape. Another approach to solving moral and
ethical problems is Intuitionism. Intuitionism proposes that good and bad
our objective properties that can’t be broken down into component parts.
Something is good because it is good. Its goodness doesn’t need justification nor
proving. Someone who believes in intuitionism
might say “murder is wrong because it’s wrong. It’s just wrong.” intuitionism
suggests that basic moral truths are self-evident to people who direct their
minds to them. Intuition enables the discovery of basic
objective moral truths. George Edward Moore put it like this in 1902: The idea that moral truths are
objective facts that can be discovered is attractive, but it has many critics.
There’s no way to distinguish between something that is right and something
that merely seems right to a particular person. Also if intuitionism worked
properly we would expect more people to come to the same conclusions
on moral issues, but they don’t. If there were objective moral truths surely they
would be the same for everyone, but different people come to different
conclusions. Many philosophers don’t think that there is such a thing as an
objective moral truth. Moral statements aren’t factual statements about the
world they’re just opinions. Even if there is such a thing as an objective
moral truth can we ever know what it is? There’s no way to test it scientifically. Consequentialism is yet another approach
to solving moral and ethical problems. Consequentialism proposes that the
morality of an action depends not on the action itself but on the consequences of
it. So an action isn’t inherently wrong or right. To assess the action we must
look at what occurs as a consequence of it. So for a consequentialist no act is
inherently wrong, not even murder. It all depends on the consequence of the action.
If murdering one person results in saving the lives of a hundred then it
was morally right, not wrong. Consequentialism is very attractive. We
usually make decisions by considering the consequences. So it makes sense to
base ethics on consequences. Consequentialism is simple and it seems
to make sense. There are two kinds of consequentialism
act consequentialism and rule consequentialism. Act consequentialism requires us to take a fresh look at every moral choice. We can conclude that a
particular moral choice is good only if the consequences that
most of it are good. act consequentialism Act Consequentialism is very flexible because it can take
account of any set of circumstances. But it can be a bit impractical to treat
every moral decision as a separate choice to be fully evaluated. Researching
all the possible outcomes and eventual consequences can be time-consuming. This
could be paralyzing and sometimes delaying a decision might even make
things worse. So in addition to Act Consequentialism we have Rule Consequentialism. Rule consequentialism bases moral rules on their consequences. We have a set of rules that tells us if acts are good or bad. Following the rules
results in the correct choices. Now this is still consequentialism because the
rules are chosen based on their consequences. But following the rules
means we don’t have to evaluate each moral choice afresh. The hard work has
been done in deriving the rules. So rule consequentialism is practical and
efficient. But it’s not as flexible as act consequentialism. Sometimes the
general rules don’t produce the best possible outcome for a particular
situation. Consequentialism is very attractive but it’s problematic. It’s not
always possible to predict the consequences of a choice. There may be
unintended consequences. This is especially true when dealing with
ethical and moral choices related to new technologies. Also measuring and
comparing the different outcomes is difficult. Consequentialism is interested
only in consequences it doesn’t consider intent. If people mean well but the
consequences of a choice they make are bad, does that make the choice in an immoral one? Utilitarianism is a special kind of consequentialism. Utility is the sum of all the good that comes from an action minus all the bad that comes from it. The choice that maximizes utility is the
moral one. The choice that does the most good for the most people is the most
moral choice. It seems sensible to base morality or
ethics on increasing happiness and reducing unhappiness. Utilitarianism is
especially seductive when outcomes can be quantified. Things like income, life
expectancy, test scores, days of work missed, can all be measured and policies that
improve them on average can seem like very good choices. But attempts to do the
most good for the most people can lead to clearly immoral choices. Imagine it
was possible to objectively measure happiness in a society and everyone was
given a happiness figure ranging from 0 to 10 (where low values represent
unhappiness and people with high values are very happy) Let’s suppose that the
happiness level for most people was around 6. Now it’s tempting to think
that if the consequences of an action result in higher average happiness, then
that action is morally good. Suppose it is proposed that all of the blonde
people (who make up 10% of the population) should be enslaved. A consequentialist
would evaluate the rightness or wrongness of that choice based on how
happy people would be as a result of the choice.
Let’s further suppose that being freed from mundane chores like cooking and
cleaning and laundry made most people happier and that increased each one’s
happiness by 2. Of course the people who have been inflamed would be a lot
less happy. Let’s say their happiness level was reduced to 1. If you do the
maths, it turns out that the average level of happiness would increase from
6.0 to 7.4. A utilitarian would be forced to conclude then that
slavery is a morally sound choice. But clearly it’s not. Maximizing average
utility doesn’t necessarily result in morally sound choices. Doing the most
good for the most people isn’t always fair, yet such arguments are often used
in making decisions about health care or education or economics. Anywhere you can
put numbers on good, there’s a temptation to maximize the average value. Researchers into the way people make
moral choices use the Trolley Problem. The Trolley Problem is a thought
experiment that teases out how people think about moral issues and variations
of it have been used for over a century. Imagine a street trolley is careering out of
control down the street and five people are in its path. They will most likely be
killed. You are standing by a switch that can
divert the trolley down a different path. If you pull the switch the five people
will be saved but one other person will die. The difficult question is should you
pull the switch? When faced with this scenario most people believe that
pulling the switch would be the morally sound choice. Most people think that
causing the death of one person to save five is the right choice The Fatman
variant of the trolley problem is slightly different. In this variant a fat
man is standing next to you at the platform. If you push the fat man off the
platform into the path of the trolley you would stop it and save the five
people in the trolley’s path. Should you push the fat man? Most people are reluctant to push the
fat man into the path of the trolley. Even those who were prepared to pull the
switch are typically reluctant to push him. However, on the face of it the
calculation is the same: 1 life in exchange for 5. Yet somehow it’s
different. Researchers are interested in what makes it different. What do you
think? There are many variations of the trolley problem that try to tease out
different issues. But it’s used to illustrate that sometimes the logic we
use for making moral choices is more complex than it seems at first. Although
the trolley problem was just a thought experiment initially there is renewed
interest in it now that we have self-driving cars on horizon. The
software in a car may actually have to make these kind of choices.
Humans would expect a car to make morally sound choices, but codifying this
morality is actually quite difficult. Teasing out exactly what a car
should do in a given scenario is very complex. Yet another ethics is Deontology. The deontological approach is in complete contrast to
consequentialism because it focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions
themselves rather than their consequences. The deontological approach
to ethics would never propose pushing the fat man in front of the trolley no
matter how many people had saved. The good consequences of that action could
never justify it. Deontological ethics focuses on rules duty and obligations.
This type of ethics is typically associated with Moral Absolutism. Moral
Absolutism is the belief that some actions are always wrong no matter what
the circumstances are consequences. Immanuel Kant famously argued that it
was always wrong to tell a lie even if a murderer is asking for the location of a
potential victim. A person who subscribes to the deontological view of ethics
might find himself saying things like “it’s the principle of the thing that
matters”. Moral Relativism on the other hand proposes that there are no
objective nor universal moral rights or wrongs. Social, cultural, historical, and
personal circumstances can influence whether an action is moral or not. Moral
relativism is most often invoked when discussing other cultures. Someone
might say that “in my culture that choice would be immoral but it’s not for me to
say how people from other cultures should live their lives”. The idea that
democratic values, human rights like freedom of expression and freedom from
torture are universal values it is resisted by some governments. Moral
relativism can be used as an excuse not to condemn immoral acts. Sometimes it can be used too easily to
let others off the hook. A moral relativist might say “it’s not for me to
say it’s not for me to judge others”. Virtue ethics focuses on an individual’s
character as a guiding force it is less about rules acts and their consequences.
It’s all about being virtuous and living a good life. Patience, for example, is a
virtue. One should be patient. Compassion is a
virtue. When faced with a moral dilemma a proponent of virtue ethics typically
asks “what a virtuous person would do in that situation?” She might ask: One of the criticisms
are virtue ethics is that people in different cultures have vastly different
views on what constitutes a virtue. It’s difficult to predict what conclusions
virtue ethics might come to in a given situation. When faced with the trolley
problem what would Gandhi do? What would Jesus do? Who knows? Virtue ethics can be
difficult to apply. When we consider how we make moral and
ethical choices it is easy to ignore the influence of culture. The culture in
which we live has a huge influence on our moral compass. It can be difficult to
hold views that differ from those that prevail in one’s culture. We may think we
are carefully considering a moral question for ourselves, but our values
and our reasoning will be influenced by our upbringing. Even if we come to a
conclusion that is at odds with the prevailing view, it may be difficult to
act on it. There may be a price to pay for acting morally. That’s a challenge we
may face in our professional and personal lives. But when we do encounter
moral arguments it’s important to identify on which ethical traditions
they are drawing. That can help us to fully understand the choices someone is
advocating and may also help to identify possible counter-arguments.
So to summarize: we’ve considered several different sources of moral values
several different kinds of reasoning that people apply to work out what they
should do in a particular situation. When faced by an ethical or moral dilemma
people may be drawing on one or many of these.

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