Ethics and Human Interface

In the summer of 1884, four English sailors led by Capitan Thomas Dudley were stranded at sea in a small lifeboat since their ship had gone down in a storm. They were left with only two cans of preserved turnips and no fresh water. Within few days, they was left with nothing to eat. One of the crew was an orphan boy, Richard Parker who against the advice of crew members drunk seawater and became ill, appeared to be dying. Dudley suggested drawing lots to determine who would die so that the others might live but Brooks, one of the crew refused. Next day, Dudley told Brooks to avert his gaze and motioned to Stephens that Parker had to be killed. He offered a prayer and then killed cabin boy with a penknife. Brooks emerged from his conscientious objection to share in the gruesome bounty. For four days, the three men fed on the body and blood of the cabin boy and then help came. Dudley describes their rescue in his diary, with staggering euphemism: “On the 24th day, as we were having our breakfast,” a ship appeared at last. Upon their return to England, they were arrested and tried. They freely confessed that they had killed and eaten Parker. They claimed they had done so out of necessity.

Suppose you were the judge, How would you rule? To simplify things, put aside the question of law and assume that you were asked to decide whether killing the cabin boy was morally permissible. Very Often, our moral judgements are based on the opinions that are mere reflections of our experiences, moral commitments and the moral framework that we use to evaluate these questions.  But to qualify the test of fairness, this moral framework has to be dually reasoned one.

In order to develop reasoned moral framework, it is pre-requisite to have availability of various options for us to make a choice that might be against prevailing system of morality. This moral reasoning is the very essence of Ethics, which is possible because we can act against our nature, based on our conscience. This moral reasoning stops us from simply describing what is likely to happen, and allows us to make judgements about what should happen. Of all the ways you might act, which is the best? Of all the possibilities, which one should bring into reality? That’s the question ethics seeks to answer.

According to Mackenzie, Ethics is the study of what is good or right in conduct.

According to William Lillie, “Ethics is a normative science of the conduct of human beings living in societies which judges this conduct to be right or wrong, good and bad.”

Ethics is the philosophical study of morality which is the set of beliefs concerning right and wrong, good and bad etc. These beliefs can be our personal judgments and upheld values or principles which guide our actions, define our values and give us reasons for being the persons we are. Ethics attempts to addresses the powerful question that Socrates formulated years ago – how ought we to live?

Do the questions of executive high-handedness, crisis of morality in private and public life, gender biased laws, regressive socio-cultural practices concern you? If these questions concern you then ethics matters to you since these are ethical concerns. Though ethics is inescapable and important in life, still one can look for easy way out – being indifferent to reason over moral questions. Though this approach may seem to be simple and painless but it has some drawbacks which are as follows;

    • Undermining personal freedom – If you directly accept and never question the moral beliefs handed to you by your culture, then those beliefs are not really yours—and they, not you
      control the path you take in life. Only if you critically examine these beliefs and decide for yourself – you can enjoy freedom in real sense.
    • Inability to deal with ethical dilemma – The no-questions-asked approach increases the chances that your responses to moral dilemmas will be incomplete, confused or mistaken. Sometimes in real life, moral principles conflict with one another. Solving these problems requires a moral framework to critically evaluate existing moral beliefs.
    • Halt on intellectual moral growth – To not do ethics is to stay locked in a kind of intellectual limbo where exploration in ethics and personal moral progress are barely possible
    • May end up living a life of Amoral – If someone blindly embraces the societal morality, he will be unable to defend his beliefs derived from upheld morality by rational argument. He will feel lost and bewildered if others contradict his beliefs based on rational arguments. This will compel him to deny all morality and end up living a life of Amoral.

We have seen the drawbacks of being indifferent to ethics and ethical reasoning. Now, it’s high time to decode the nature of ethics for better understanding of the concept. Let’s understand with the following characteristics of ethics;

    • Attributes of Ethics – Some of which are universalistic (Practice of non-violence) and others are relative (Adultery in marriage) in nature. It may be specific to a particular task, profession or area of responsibility, for instance, Ethics of a doctor.
    • Cultivation of Ethics – Ethics can’t be cultivated in insolation but requires involvement of society in order to develop social codes of conduct. This is being used to promote and elevate acceptable behaviour as a social value and rejected and condemn unacceptable behaviour. For instance, Allowing love birds to roam around freely and condemning the Bajrang dal, for their conduct of beating these love birds on Valentine day.
    • Sense of responsibility – Ethics cannot be maintained or sustained by merely accountability to some external agency but also to something within. For instance, Corruption in Public life can’t be deal with merely by being law abiding public servants (Virtue of Honesty and Integrity) but it requires stubborn commitment to expose corrupt activities (Virtue of Probity).
    • Variability – It may vary between cultural and ethnic groups (For e.g. Consumption of Non- veg meals) but there tends to be broad agreement within national communities on what is right and what is wrong. Thus, it is best understood in context of moral standards prevailing in particular societies.

Discussion on the question of nature of ethics take us to another question i.e. subject matter of ethics. How ethics is related to other disciplines of study? Let’s understand relationship of ethics which other sciences;

    • Normative science instead of Positive science – Ethics differs from positive science which is concerned with facts and explains them by their causes, but ethics deals with values. It evaluates standard or norms (Normative Science) by which we can judge human action to be right or wrong.
    • Science of Character – According to Intuitionists, Ethics is the science of right and it ought to be obeyed under all circumstances. Thus, it reflects the moral character of a person in the sense – whether there exists consistency or not in the conduct of a person based on moral principles.
    • Ethics and practical science – Ethics is not like practical science which is a means for the realization of an end. For example, the medical science is a means to remove the causes of disease but ethics tries to see what the ultimate goal of life is and how this goal can be reached.
    • Ethics and Art – Art depends upon result while ethics is based on motive. As Mackenzie described, in art the ultimate appeal is to the work achieved whereas in morals the ultimate appeal is to the inner harmony. Further, he argues that virtue implies activity i.e. virtuous men actually practises morality whereas in case of art the possession of skill is more important than the actual activity. For example, a good painter is one who can paint beautiful whereas a good man is not one who can but one who acts rightly.

We are done with our tasks to decode ethics in detail. Now it’s time to understand some key concepts associated with the domain of ethics. These concepts are in-depth explanation of the core ideas that subject of Ethics contains. Let’s understand them;

If we go by the definition of Hedonism, Whatever human beings consider to be good involves happiness and pleasure and whatever they consider to be bad involves unhappiness and pain. But it requires broader interpretation (from simple sensual pleasures to intellectual or spiritual

pleasures and from sensual pain to deep emotional unhappiness), otherwise it would be difficult to deny that whatever is good involves at least some pleasure or happiness and whatever is bad involves some pain or unhappiness.

One element involved in the achievement of happiness is the necessity of taking the long-range rather than the short-range view. People may undergo some pain or unhappiness in order to attain some pleasure or happiness in the long run. For example, we will put up with the pain of having our teeth drilled in order to keep our teeth and gums healthy so that we may enjoy eating and the general good health.

But there are some actions that will bring a person some good but will cause pain to another, such as act of a sadist who gains pleasure from violently mistreating another human being that can be categorised under “malicious pleasures”. Let’s understand some key concepts associated with these words;

    • EXCELLENCE – William Frankena states that whatever is good will also probably involve “some degree of excellence”. Excellence is an important addition to pleasure or satisfaction in that it makes “experiences or activities better than they would otherwise be.” For example, the enjoyment or satisfaction gained from seeing a fine movie, to a great extent, is attributed to the excellence of the creators and presenters of these events.
    • HARMONY AND CREATIVITYThere are two other attributes of “good” and “right” – harmony and creativity (on the “good” side) and disharmony and lack of creativity (on the “bad” side). If an action is creative and helps to bring about a harmonious integration of as many human beings as possible then we can say it is a right action. If an action has the opposite effect, then we can say that it is a wrong action. For example, Role of USA in bringing harmony between Israel and Gulf states through Abraham Accords that can create an honourable and lasting peace (Right or good action) whereas USA decision to withdraw NATO force from Afghanistan has caused instability with the rise of Taliban (Wrong and bad action).

ETHICS AND AESTHETICS – Ethics deals with what is good, bad, right or wrong in a moral sense whereas aesthetics (study of values in art or beauty) refers to – what is good, bad, right or wrong in art and what constitutes the beautiful and the non-beautiful in our lives. There can, of course, be some overlap between the two areas. For example, one can judge Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica from an artistic point of view, deciding whether it is beautiful or ugly, whether it constitutes good or bad art in terms of artistic technique. One can also discuss its moral import. In this painting, Picasso makes moral comments on the cruelty and immorality of war and the inhumanity of people towards one another.

Amoral It refers to having no moral sense or being indifferent to right and wrong. Certain people who have had prefrontal lobotomies tend to act amorally after the operation (No sense of right and wrong) and few human beings, despite moral education have remained or become amoral. Such people are of certain criminal nature who can’t realize their crime and don’t have any remorse or regret for their misconduct. One such example of an amoral person is Gregory Powell, who along with Jimmy Lee Smith gratuitously killed a policeman in an onion field south of Bakersfield, California (Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field). Another such example is Colin Pitchfork who raped and killed two young girls in England (The Blooding by Wambaugh).

Non-Moral – It refers to those objects that are beyond the question of morality altogether. For example, inanimate objects such as cars and guns are neither moral nor immoral. A person using the car or gun may use it immorally but the things themselves are non-moral.

When we say that a dog is good or that a car runs badly, we are often using these value terms (good, bad, etc.) in neither an aesthetic nor a moral sense. When we say that a car runs badly, we mean that there is something mechanically (but not morally or aesthetically) wrong with the car’s engine.

Similarly, in calling a dog good, we do not mean that the dog is morally good or even beautiful, we mean that it does not bite or that it barks only when strangers threaten us. In short, what we usually mean by such a statement is that the thing in question is good because it can be used to fulfil some kind of function.

Aristotle argued that being moral has to do with the function of a human being and in developing his argument he moved from the non-moral to the moral uses of good and bad. He suggested that anything that is good or bad is so because it functions well or poorly. If we could discover what the function of a human being is, then we would know how the term good or bad can be applied to human life. Since reason is the proper function of human being, he concluded that being moral essentially means “reasoning well for a complete life”.

Manners (or etiquette) is an area of human behaviour closely allied with morals. Not all human behaviour can be classified as moral – some of it is (non-moral) and some of it is (social), having to do with manners which is essentially a matter of taste rather than of right or wrong. Here, it is important to distinguish between non-moral and moral behaviour which has to do with manners alone.

Let us take an example from everyday life – an employer giving a secretary a letter to type. Both the act of giving the letter to the secretary and the secretary’s act in typing it involve non-moral behaviour. Let us now suppose that the employer uses rude words in talking to the secretary in front of all of the employees in the office – this exhibits poor manners but employer has not really done anything immoral.

Let us now suppose that the contents of the letter would ruin an innocent person’s reputation. The behaviour now falls into the sphere of morality and questions must be raised about the morality of the employer’s behaviour. Also, a moral problem arises for the secretary concerning whether he or she should type the letter. Further, if the employer uses rude words to intimidate or sexually harass the secretary then he is being immoral by threatening the employee’s sense of personal integrity and professional pride.

We had enough discussion on the key concepts associated with ethics and morals. It’s time to delve into the subject of Morality – What it constitutes? Source of Morality? Who is morally responsible?

Who is morally responsible?

Morality pertains only to human beings, all else is just speculation. If one wants to attribute morality to supernatural beings (God), one has to do so on faith. If one wants to hold animals or plants morally responsible for destructive acts against each other or against humans then one has to ignore most of the evidence that science has given.

Recent experimentation with the teaching of language to animals suggests that they are at least minimally capable of developing some thought processes similar to those of humans. It is even possible that they might be taught morality in the future, as humans are now. If this were to occur then animals could be held morally responsible for their actions. At the present time, most evidence indicates that animals and plants should be classified as either non-moral or amoral.

While discussing the application of morality, let’s understand the various aspects of morality;

    • RELIGIOUS MORALITY – Relationship between human beings and supernatural being (God) is the source of Religious morality. In Hindu tradition, Swayamvar (Choosing one’s own groom) is considered as religious duty and those who violate the norms of this divine duty are answerable to God after death. For instance, In Mahabharat, Conduct of Bhism to win queens of Kashi Janpadas on behalf of his step brother is generally regarded as violation to the norms of Swayambar, thereby, answerable to God.
    • MORALITY AND NATURE – It refers to a human being in relationship to nature which is been prevalent in all primitive cultures. More recently, the Western tradition has also become aware of the significance of dealing with nature in a moral manner (For e.g. Environmental Ethics). Some see nature as being valuable only for the good of humanity but many others have come to see it as a good in itself, worthy of moral consideration.
    • INDIVIDUAL MORALITY – It is derived as a result of individual code of morality that may not be sanctioned by any society or religion. It allows for a “higher morality” (based on Conscience) which can be found within the individual rather than beyond this world. For example, Divya believes in Gandharva Vivah (Pre- Marital sex or loosely described as Live-in- Relationship) based on her conscience or code of morality.
    • SOCIAL MORALITY – It is the result of human interaction in the society. Whenever human beings come together in social groups, conflict is bound to happen in absence of social code of conduct. This code of conduct is either of divine origin (Chaturvarna system of Vedas) or man-made (Ethical Egoism, Altruism or Utilitarianism). For example, virtue of tolerance and mutual acceptance can be considered as an aspect of social morality in Indian society.

SUPERNATURAL THEORY – According to this perspective, values come from some supernatural being or principle – the Good (Plato), the gods (Greeks and Romans), Yahweh (Jews), God and His Son, Jesus (Christians), Allah (Muslims), Brahma (the Hindus) They believe that these beings embody the highest good themselves that they reveal to human beings – what is right or wrong and good or bad. If human beings want to be moral (usually encouraged in such desires by some sort of temporal or eternal reward) then they must follow the teachings of these beings. If they don’t, then they will end up being disobedient to the highest morality (God), will be considered immoral and will met with temporal or eternal punishment for their transgressions.

    • CRITICISMS – Albert Einstein said, “I do not believe in immortality of the individual and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.” It is possible that the supernatural exists and evidence for its existence is often cited, indeed, there have been philosophical arguments put forward that attempted to prove God’s existence. However, there is no conclusive proof of the existence of a supernatural being.

NATURAL LAW THEORY – Thomas Aquinas argued for natural laws being the source of morality and human beings must adhere to these laws to be moral. For example, Homosexuality can be called immoral based on this perspective because it is against nature for human beings of the same sex to have sexual desires for each other.

    • CRITICISMS – Closer examination of laws of nature (such as law of gravity) differentiates it with from man-made laws (Doctrine of Reciprocity). According to law of gravity, when a ball thrown into the air will fall to the ground but Doctrine of reciprocity implies that human beings should or ought to help each other. Thus, law of gravity describes the trajectory of ball whereas Doctrine of Reciprocity prescribes conduct of human beings.

Customary Morality – It is based on custom or tradition which is presented to the members of society without critical evaluation. This helps in the moral training of society’s members, in turn, moral societies can be formed. For example, in order to live together in peace, moral teaching against killing human being needs to be propagated. But there is a dark side to customary morality, for example, traditional institutions such as Khap Panchayats deprives women of their basic rights and promote patriarchy in crudest form.

Reflective Morality – Its formulation can be understood in the backdrop of customary morality. According to this perspective, customs or traditions need to be examined critically to ensure that it has basis in truth. It does not suggest that custom and tradition be thrown out completely but it urges human beings to use reason to examine the basis and effectiveness of customary moral teachings. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Thus, customary morality which affects everybody lives on daily basis need critical evaluation as done by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in order to free Indian society from the evil practice of Sati system.

Detailed discussion on the subject of morality has shown its implication on other domains of study such as Religion, Law, Value system etc. Let’s understand the key concepts of distinction among these domains;

Morality without law

The sole purpose of law is to provide a system of do’s and don’ts in order to guide human being in their behaviour and to protect them from doing harm to persons and property. Some laws have less moral import (For e.g. Legalisation of Betting) than others (For e.g. Laws against Killing) that does mean morality can be equated with law and vice versa.

Taking the case of Ethics in private relationship wherein instances of marital rapes are rampant, particularly in India, though it’s legal but against the basic tenets of morality. Similarly, the question of adultery in marriage is beyond the scope of law that can only be dealt in the framework of morality. Since, there is no way a law can regulate someone’s desire for another man’s wife as long as the adulterous act is never carried out.

This indicates that morality is not necessarily based on law. It does mean that a moral society could be formed without having sound legal system or law should be eliminated from human affairs. It attempts to argue that law is not a necessary attribute of morality. However, role of law is quite crucial in enforcing morality through a system of reward or punishment.

Laws without morality

All laws are more or less derived from morality which provides the reasons behind laws enacted to govern human being. For instance, laws against killing and stealing are based on Divine command theory. It is unimaginable to think about a law which doesn’t concern morality.

Law and Morality

  • Law is the public codification of morality which dictates moral way of behaviour for every member in the society. For Example, Indecency (Prostitution) in public space is strictly prohibited.
  • Law sanctions moral behaviours. For example, Whistle blower Protection Act aims to protect those who expose corruption in public office.
  • Unjust laws can’t be rectified through more laws and regulations but requires valid moral reasoning. For instance, Instead of making various regulations to protect Right to Privacy, Hon’ble Supreme Court declared it as Fundamental right.
  • Law sanctions morality but it cannot replace or be a substitute for morality. For instance, Probity in Public life can’t be enforced through legal mechanism, it requires cultivation of moral values at personal level.
  • Without morality, law framework is immaterial or insignificant. For instance, legalisation of Slavery never did well to anyone and resulted into Civil wars in many countries across the world.

Ethics and law

There are various views on the relationship between ethics and law. Some of them are as follows;

  • Law is used as a device to enforce the ethical views of a society (Customary morality). Law abiding citizens are those who behave in a way that is ethically acceptable in the society.

       Objections to this view 

    • In a multi-cultural society (e.g. Indian society), there is an insufficient agreement on ethical issues (e.g. Non-veg foods) for the law to enforce anything that can be seen as an ethical consensus.
    • Law permits behaviour that many people consider ethically unacceptable – gambling, high-pressure selling and arms dealing.
  • Law should not be exploited in order to enforce ethical behaviours rather it should ensure maximum permissible liberty for the citizens. If law doesn’t intend to promote liberty and too restrictive in nature, it can be regarded as unethical. For instance, Population control laws which attempts to arrest population growth through coercive means instead of this people should be made aware with family planning techniques and given freedom to decide, how many kids they want to produce.
  • Law is not an appropriate instrument to make judgements on critical ethical concerns. Taking the case of legalising “Misleading truth” (Read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky sexual scandal) which is prevalent in public administration wherein Public officials exploit the loopholes in laws (Driven by malicious intention) in their own interest. Though this is an ethical concern but laws can’t be made to punish the public servants for their malicious intentions.

According to Charles Colson, “Morality describes what is, whereas Ethics describes what ought to be”. Fundamentally, morals refer to a set of rules defining what is considered to be right or wrong and accepted without questions. These rules are typically defined by society. If someone breaks such a rule then he is typically considered to have been “bad” or “immoral.”

Values, on the other hand, provide direction in the determination of right versus wrong or good versus bad. Values are what an individual believes to have worth and importance or to be valuable. As such, morals are values defining right from wrong or good from bad.

Ethics refers to the “moral character of an individual”. The Greeks believed that it includes an emphasis on an individual’s character as well as national character of a citizen as a component of a greater community.

Morals Ethics
Derived from Latin word moralis, meaning “traditional customs” Derived from the Greek word, ethos, meaning moral character
Typically associated with personal behaviour Typically refers to professional practices and behaviour
Customs or manners practiced in any given community or culture Conveys sense of stability/permanence
May be different from culture to culture An absolute standard of behaviour
May change as acceptable social behaviour in the culture changes Standard is universal and immutable (not subject to change)