3.1 What is the Study of Ethics?

The first task facing anyone who desires to understand ethical issues is to determine what is the nature of the things being studied. This task does not appear to be as straightforward as it does in some other disciplines. After all, moral objects are not the same sort as chairs, automobiles, or electric motors. Nor are they of the same sort as planaria, fir trees, water buffalo, harp seals, or even the girl next door. Consequently, the study of moral or ethical ideas must be approached rather differently than the study of physical objects, whether inanimate or animate.

For instance, an automobile can be measured; the relationships between its parts can be described completely, and detailed specifications for building another just like it can be developed. On a less exacting level, the owner of a car can use the senses of sight, touch, and possibly smell to distinguish a particular vehicle among a number of functionally similar but not identical ones. On yet another level, an automobile can be described in terms of its performance. One might wish to own a car that can stop from 100 km/hr in less than 10 seconds, or can accelerate to this speed in less than 20 seconds, or uses less than 10 litres of gasolene to the hundred kilometres (in some places this would be expressed in miles per gallon). These performance factors can be tested for and the results published for all to see. Decisions can then be made on the basis of concrete, reproducible, experimental data.

The point is that scientific methods can be employed to describe (in some kind of statistical or numeric sense) every physical object and every living thing. Not only can the natural earth and its contents be so described (geology, biology, chemistry, and physics), but so can the products of human invention (engineering and technology)--all this despite the reservations about the nature of reality discussed in Chapter 2.

There are some things that are relatively less tangible that may nevertheless be physically measurable and therefore open to an exact study. Consider the colour red, for instance. By agreement, people use the word red to describe a particular part of the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Someone could object that "redness" might not be perceived by everyone in the same way. However, the mutual agreement means that it is still possible for any person with normal vision to decide whether or not something is red simply by referring to personal knowledge of this consensus. Everyone has from birth been involved in an indoctrination into a language for describing the properties of the physical world, and in particular, into the meaning of red.

It is not even necessary to know what an electromagnetic spectrum is in order to be a part of the consensus that some object has the redness property. Even though there are many shades and kinds of red, the communication of the idea of this colour does not at all depend on any technical understanding of the idea. Redness can be communicated accurately, even though the term is an abstraction of a physical property, and not, in the strictest sense, a measurement (although it could be turned into one by attaching a particular wavelength of visible light to the word). This is true even though it cannot be guaranteed that every person experiencing redness does so in exactly the same way.

The difficulty with moral objects--like others that are not physical in nature--is that one cannot often describe them in the same ways as one does the physical ones. If one says that it is "good" to tell the truth, for example, one must ask what is meant by "good." How can one tell when such a quality is present, and how does one know whether some actions have more goodness than others--that is, how does one quantify goodness?

Goodness is clearly not an adjective that describes a physical object like a chair. It is also a different kind of abstraction than is "red," for the latter can be thought of as referring to a measurable physical quality, even if neither directly nor exactly. Redness describes something in the physical world, even if those who use the description do not know or care about the scientific principles underlying the concept. Goodness, on the other hand, may not be physical, but most people do attach detailed meanings to the term. Though a Christian would ascribe the quality of goodness to God alone, many do not point to any person or thing as its origin, yet still assert that it exists.

The study of moral issues is not only different from that of science but also from, say, history, sociology, or economics (even though it once included the latter two). In the last three cases, the exact methods of science may not always be applicable, but the practitioners of such disciplines all agree that they are studying something tangible. That is, they are certain that factual determinations can be made in these disciplines and that there are objective truths to study or discover, even if the character of such determinations is quite unlike the character of physical objects.

For instance, not all historians would agree that "Nero fiddled while Rome burned", but they would agree that the truth or falsity of this statement is at least theoretically determinable--capable of being decided on the basis of the weight of testimony of a sufficient number of reliable witnesses. The historian gathers accounts of the incident under study and attempts to weigh these accounts to get at the truth--and assumes that there does exist an objective and discoverable truth. The outcome of such a study may not be supported by a repeatable experiment in the same sense as in a laboratory science, but the outcome is not regarded as less than "knowledge". Furthermore, historians assume that any similarly competent person can repeat a study of the available evidence and either come to substantially the same conclusions or attempt to achieve some new consensus of what is the historical truth. The important concept is the agreement among historians on methodology, evidential content, and (ideally) conclusions. Even where there are disagreements about these, there is no argument that an objective truth does exist.

Likewise, not all economists would agree ahead of time on whether a tax reduction would decrease the average price of a can of beans, but all would assume that with good and sufficient data, such actions can be studied after the fact and well-founded conclusions drawn as to what the effects have been. That is, economists always suppose that they are studying something real in the sense of its being perceivable and measurable, even if they cannot always agree on how to make the measurements or on what the data mean.

To summarize, in the scientific disciplines one gathers first-hand, empirical evidence in a repeatable fashion and evaluates this data to verify a knowledge assertion statement. In several other fields, data of a slightly different type are accumulated and conclusions are drawn on the basis of what seems to be the weight of evidence. Even where the facts are in dispute, there is little doubt that all these disciplines have a factual basis.

The study of moral issues is not as straightforward, for in this case one cannot explain varying views of truth merely by making allowances for imprecision and differences of interpretation. Disagreements go deeper, for it is more difficult to obtain agreement about the nature of moral statements, what they are based on, where they come from, and whether they are well-founded. This difficulty is not lessened even when there is agreement about the content of a statement. For example, several moralists might agree that "Abstinence from sexual relationships outside marriage is good" constitutes a valid moral statement, but each one could have a different reason for saying this. Other moralists might agree that such a statement is deserving of study but would disagree with the content. Still others might deny even that the statement is worth making or has any meaning.

In addition, two moralists might agree on the nature and validity of a factual statement, but act in very different ways as a result because they hold to differing views on related moral issues. For example, two people might agree that "the incidence of AIDS is increasing" is a true statement, and even that this fact has moral implications. They might then come to opposite conclusions about how those having this disease should be treated socially. These differing conclusions have to do with the philosophical and religious presuppositions behind their moral reasoning processes, and the extent to which knowledge of the facts, fear, or prejudice enter into their thinking.

It is easy to make statements about whether an action is right or good, without giving the matter much thought or even being aware of what these two words mean. Are they synonyms or do they have slightly different connotations? Can they be defined in terms of other words that do not have moral/ethical meanings, or is the concept each conveys an irreducible and indefinable idea? Are they (as some claim) such subjective terms that their meaning is private to each individual and not communicable to others?

At this point, it would be valuable to set this discussion aside for a while and attempt your own definitions of these two words. (Try it!) Most people find that they can readily produce a number of additional synonyms to elaborate on the moral concept of goodness. This procedure sets a word in the cultural context of a list of other words with similar or identical meanings.

One teaches children in this manner, first tying a word-abstraction to a concrete object, and then enhancing the child's vocabulary by referring new words to the abstractions the child has already learned. For instance, the word "car" could be taught by pointing to the family vehicle. At a later date, if the child questions the word "automobile," the earlier abstraction "car" can be referred to. If this fails, a trip to the garage for another look at the physical object would be in order. At some later time, perhaps in a high-school automotive course, the child will become able to redefine car in terms of an assembly of simpler and more fundamental parts.

This example makes evident several difficulties in assigning meaning to words with moral content, such as good and right. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

1. Are "good" and "right" synonyms in the same manner as "car" and "automobile?" That is, if one sets aside varying meanings in other contexts, do they have exactly the same meaning in a moral context?

2. What is the concrete object that can be pointed to in order to define a first word with moral connotations, and so get a handle on the remaining synonyms? That is, if goodness and rightness cannot be found in the garage or on the street, where can they be found?

3. For the more sophisticated inquirer, what are the constituent parts of goodness and rightness into which these complex ideas can be disassembled for more detailed study? Or, are there none--because these are irreducible concepts that cannot be defined in other terms?

Aspects of the last two questions, the most difficult, shall be dealt with in this chapter. For the moment, note in connection with the first question that a problem arises because there are many uses for the word "good" that carry the meaning "desirable," "more than satisfactory," or the like. There are similar problems with the word right. Consider, for instance, the use of the word good in the following statements:

1. World War II was good for the North American economy.

2. Vanadium is a good catalyst.

3. Friendship is good.

4. It is good to tell the truth.

Historians and economists might argue about whether statement 1 is true as it stands, but they would be comfortable with modifying and qualifying it until they had a version that they could agree was either true or false. The record of their decision would also carry with it a review of the facts or statistics that went into making the decision, as well as a discussion of what were the agreed-upon criteria to place positive or negative interpretations on movements in a nation's economy. With all this in hand, similarly qualified experts who did not participate in the initial decision would have the means to become a part of the consensus (or not) at a later time. However, even if other experts did not agree with the conclusion, they would have little trouble attaching rather specific meanings to the word good as it is used in the initial statement.

Likewise, scientists would also have to qualify statement 2, for it may not be true under all circumstances. Moreover, this assertion is true as it stands only relative to the effectiveness of other catalysts in similar circumstances. It is not even necessary to know exactly what Vanadium is or what catalysts are in order to realize that meaningful criteria could be established and experiments done to verify the truth of statement 2. A person who knows little or nothing about chemistry could imagine a numerical value being attached to this use of the word "good" such as: "A good catalyst shall be defined as one which speeds up the progress of a chemical reaction by a factor of at least 3.14 over what it would be in the absence of said catalyst." In short, there is some general agreement in such cases about what the word "good" will be taken to mean, and disagreements about the meaning will be neither sharp nor divisive but simply indicate that a better definition or a more specific term is needed.

It is much more difficult to say precisely what statements 3 and 4 mean, and even harder to determine their validity. There are two groups of questions associated with such statements.

The first questions focus on meaning. What kind of statement is being made? Is it a description of a fact? Is it an expression of the belief of one person or of a small group of persons? Is it, on the other hand, the declaration of a generally accepted consensus--that is, a collective decision of society? Does the statement represent the conclusion drawn from some logical thought process by a repeatable method of deductive reasoning from more fundamental principles or assumptions? Or, is it perhaps the announcement of a discovery in a way similar to the determination of facts in other disciplines? That is, has some principle of the moral universe been uncovered that has the same kind of validity as a physical law by virtue of being inherent in the reality perceived? Does this mean that there is a moral sense, like that of touch or taste? These questions will be considered in following sections. For now, note simply that the greatest division among theories of "good" is on whether such ideas are decided upon or discovered.

What exactly does the word good mean in the contexts of statements 3 and 4? It seems clear that it means something fundamentally different than in statements 1 and 2, but just what? Does good carry the same meaning in 3 as it does in 4, and would both statements still convey the same idea if one used the word right instead?

The second group of questions focuses on the validity or content of such statements. How does a person determine if statements about moral concepts are true? Even granted that people can reach an understanding or at least an agreement about the meaning of goodness in both statements, how does one determine that friendship or truth-telling belong in the category of things that are good? Is there only one good of which all others are aspects, or are there many goods? If many, what happens if two goods are in conflict? Is it possible to prioritize goods or rights so that such conflicts can be eliminated or at lest reduced?

Furthermore, if something is in the category of good, does it also follow that it should be pursued--that is, does there exist an imperative that what is good ought to be promoted or done by everyone? (This last question adds a new one to the first group: What do the words "should" and "ought" mean in the context of moral statements?) Finally, who or what authority is authorized to pursue the shoulds, and with what force? That is, if good does imply should, can society or an individual in it legitimately require behaviour that ought to be done because it is good?

It will come as no great surprise to learn that many books have been written in the attempt to answer these questions. A complete survey of all the schools of thought on all of these points is far beyond the scope of this work, but in the balance of the chapter an attempt will be made to summarize the major positions on these issues. Anyone who considers seriously the specific social and moral/ethical issues raised in this book must at least have some idea what it is that people are doing when they make moral judgements, and how the judgement-making method in question fits in with those of the major schools of philosophy.

Before going on, here are three working definitions:

The study of the meaning and nature of moral statements is called moral philosophy.

The study of the content of moral statements with a view to applying them to right and wrong human behaviour is called ethics, and one who makes statements resulting from such study is termed an ethicist or a moralist.

Profile on Issues . . .

The Good and the Should -- A few Questions

Once the good and the right is known or believed to be true, what power has it to constrain a course of action? Here are samples of questions that arise in such contexts.


Does the knowledge of good automatically imply a person will do that good? Does failure to do good mean the person did not know the good? Who is responsible for the failure -- the one who did not do good, or all those who did not ensure the person fully knew the good? Does it make a difference if "belief" is substituted for "knowledge?"

- Who is responsible for crime -- the criminal, society, or no one?

Individuals enforcing the good on others:

Can one individual require a second to do what the first knows or believes to be good?

- May a parent require a child to submit to the parent's beliefs? discipline?

- Ought a person intervene to prevent another person from being harmed? (killed, beaten, robbed, raped, defamed, economically exploited, harassed)

- Ought a person intervene to prevent another person from self-harm? (suicide, reckless driving, using drugs, entering a bad business or social contract, believing wrong or harmful things)

- If so, ought force be used? To what extent and in which situations?

The State enforcing the good on individuals:

1. Must the state enshrine its citizens' moral consensus in law or are there circumstances in which law is above moral consensus? If the latter, does the state have a duty to re-educate its citizens to a new and correct (by its own lights) morality?

2. May the state require (with what force?) its citizens to submit to (agree to) the political, moral, or religious theories on which it is based? To what extent ought it permit seditious talk? action?

- If a parent has religious objections to blood transfusions, may the state intervene and force one upon a child to save life?

3. Does the state have the right to require a certain religion of all its peoples? no religion? If in the name of impartiality the state separates itself from or ignores religion altogether, does this constitute anti-religious discrimination?

- Is the reason for the separation of church and state the prevention of state involvement in the church or church involvement in the state? both?

- May the state legitimately regulate the employment practices, business affairs, or teachings of churches? of church-owned schools? May it require the hiring of an out-of-work pastor or teacher on welfare? May it overrule the church's decisions on whether to admit a member to the church or a student to its school if these decisions conflict with its own agenda?

- May the state overrule a church on questions of morality, declaring that since a behaviour is legal, the church contravenes the law and violates individual rights by declaring it to be immoral?

- Does the practice of granting property tax exemptions for churches and income tax deductions for contributions to churches constitute state promotion of religion? what about religious slogans or sayings in a nation's constitution? on its coins?

4. How closely may the state observe and regulate the economic activities of individuals in the name of promoting the common benefit, detecting cheaters, or ensuring fairness?

- Ought it keep cross-matched records of all economic dealings so as to spot income tax cheats?

- Ought it sell census data to private marketers?

- Ought it to guarantee certain minimum medical protection, dental protection, living accommodations, food, clothing, or wages to its citizens?

5. Should the state enact laws discriminating against a dominant religious, political, sexual, or ethnic group in order to redress perceived past inequities giving that group an advantage?

- Should the state fund minority lobby organizations for them to press their case to the state?

- Do university entrance quotas favouring minorities work to the advantage or the detriment of the minority? the majority? the university? society?

- Ought women be front-line combat soldiers?

6. What punishments may the state legitimately employ against those who break its laws (none, economic, physical, social)?

- Which of the following ought the state be permitted to do:

o require certain actions of its citizens to prevent self injury, and subsequent economic loss to others and to the state? (e.g., compulsory seat belts, motorcycle or hockey helmets)

o censor the advocacy of violence against some group? the promotion of fraudulent schemes to obtain money? the advertising of dangerous goods?

o prohibit substances (drugs) or objects (hand guns, assault rifles) deemed dangerous?

o publish the names of convicted criminals in the newspaper?

o confiscate the assets of criminals for state use?

o imprison those convicted of violent crimes? of economic crimes?

o make restitution to the victims of crime?

o require restitution from those convicted of a crime?

o physically punish certain criminals, say, whip a child molester or rapist, or execute a murderer?

o lock a device on the leg of a convicted criminal or parolee to track the person's location?

The State enforcing the good on another State:

May one state intervene with another when the second violates its citizens rights by the laws of the first? by international law? What if the international law is unwritten, or has never been agreed to by the offending nation?

- Should a nation intervene with (a) economic, (b) political, or (c) military sanctions if another state:

o invades a third state to capture its resources or to kill its peoples?

o systematically oppresses a group of its own people because of the colour of their skin (blacks in South Africa) their religion (Moslems, Jews and Christians in Communist countries), or their economic political and ethnic background (the middle class of Kampuchea, out-of-power tribes in Uganda)? What if oppression becomes large scale slaughter?

o kills large numbers of its own citizens for protesting state tyranny (students in China)?

o engages in a methodical economic exploitation of most of its citizens in order to enrich the rulers and their friends (rulers of many countries)?

o harbours (encourages and finances) terrorists or criminals (drug dealers, murderers, thieves) whose activities are detrimental to other states?

o employs economic and social systems known to be inefficient and harmful to its people (Communism)?

o is over fishing international waters whose resources are vital to itself?

o uses industrial processes that are polluting the first nation? (acid rain, chemicals dumped into border rivers and lakes)

o subsidizes its own industries or otherwise allows them to sell goods in the first nation at prices lower than they can be produced there?

Does God Intervene?

The oral traditions and scriptures (including the Bible) of several religions record instances of God (or gods) intervening in the affairs of individuals or nations to enforce some good or right action. Does such "higher intervention" still take place? Is there a corresponding outside action directed against good and for evil?

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises