A Quill Pen

Introducing Ethics

by Dave Robinson & Chris Garratt

1 August 2005 book review
by Collie Collier

An extremely quick read with humorous cartoons on every page; this book presents ethics in a very non-threatening manner. As is the norm for the "Introducing [X]" series, a bit about the personal lives of the various philosophers is offered along with a quick slice of their beliefs.

It was nice to learn something about the private lives of these people, as I feel that helps make them a bit more memorable, and sometimes helps the reader put their writings into some understandable context.

As an example, my half-guilty liking for Marx (who is not mentioned in this book) came from learning of some of his personal beliefs, as opposed to the half-demonized, half-reified renditions which are usually taught today. That particular re-writing of history bothers me -- especially since it was so immediate and annoying that the dying words of the poor man are reputed to be, "I am not a Marxist."

However, while this book does mention quite a few historical philosophers and their ethical cogitations, I found it on the whole a bit disappointing and shallow.

Admittedly, I understand this very quick over-view is going to happen of necessity in any popular culture series, let alone one titled "Introducing..." but how many folks will think that's all they need to know or learn of such enduring and complex issues? How many actually go on and do more research? I wish it were a bit clearer that these books are just suggestions on where to go to find some real studies of ethics.

All a very elitist viewpoint, I know, so to be fair I'll address the ten questions stated in the book as constants through the ages. It'll be interesting to try, and I like mental challenges. If all you're looking for is a review of this book, then that's it. If you're interested in ethics as well, please feel free to read on! ;)

The ten ethics questions

Are there certain kinds of acts (like torturing children) which are always wrong? If so, what are they?

The problem I have with this is context. For example, I'd hope most people would react with horror to the deliberate infliction of pain and damage on a child. However, using that definition of torture would include circumcision. I don't think circumcision is really necessary for the majority, but I know there are folks who do. Are they unethical? By their sights, no, but by mine, yes.

Also, I know of at least one case where I didn't like the torture, but I would have condoned it. A nurse I knew spoke of a medical ethics class she took with a number of burn ward nurses. An example was brought up in the class of a child with terrible burns across most of his body, who had to undergo an extremely painful procedure on a daily basis, so he'd survive.

The nurses who had to do this to the poor child were all struggling with their own personal ethics. It was easy for them initially -- they were helping the boy get better, after all. However, as the days passed and they had to deal with the horror of a child who would rather the pain stop than that he survive... it became harder for them to maintain their initial certainty, in the face of screamed demands that they stop torturing him, and that they allow him to die in peace.

In that context, I'd have to modify my initial statement somewhat. The sort of act which maliciously inflicts deliberate pain and damage -- i.e. they're hurting someone else because it makes them feel good to do so, and/or they want to show their power over others -- that's always wrong.

So of course, then we have to cope with the self-righteous, such as those who constantly denigrate or beat their children, "for their own good." By their own lights, they're doing it because it's the ethical, right thing to do. Where to draw the line? In these cases, I use Martin Luther King's criterion: do these actions destroy human dignity? If so, they are wrong and should be stopped.

Sniping verbally at someone (even if you somehow believe that's not malicious) until you've shattered their self-confidence isn't teaching -- it's destruction. It shatters human dignity. On the other hand, the nurses mentioned above struggled with their ethics because of the combination of the injured boy's pleas, and their powerful belief in his humanity.

They did not act out of malice; to them he was worth fighting for, and saving. Their difficult efforts were required to ensure his continued life and human dignity. I was glad to hear he later thanked them (even though it took him a while to get over the experience) for his survival and recovery.

So who defines "human dignity"? After all, if a culture or religion defines children or women as not yet human, then how can they have human dignity? In these cases, I prefer to err on the side of conservatism -- if it could be human, or is somewhere defined as human, then let's treat it as such.

What's the worst that happens -- we find out later we should have beaten someone whom we were instead kind to? Horrors. I can live with that far easier than the alternative.

So, let's answer the question precisely: acts which deliberately inflict painful damage and denigrate human dignity are wrong.

What do you think is the best answer to the question, "Why should I be a good person?"

For me, it's that doing what's right makes me feel good -- because I've deliberately chosen to accept personal responsibility. I know that may not sound like much to some folks, but I'd far, far rather people do what was right because they decided to, rather than merely due to fear of some social or religious reprisal.

That form of behavioral coercion will last only so long as the fear continues. Doing good out of choice, though, means even when reprisal isn't an issue the conscious moralist will still do what is right.

As well, I was recently delighted to read of a study where the scientists proved doing the right thing truly is a nicer feeling than doing known wrong. Apparently when you do the right thing, and you know you are so doing, your brain produces chemicals which make you feel good. How nice to hear the randomness of effective evolution has produced something so beneficial for us both individually and as a species!

Is ethics a special kind of knowledge? If so, what sort of knowledge is it and how do we get hold of it?

I'm not sure how to define "special knowledge," so I'm not really sure how to answer this part of the question. I don't consider it, for example, "special" in the sense that it can only be discovered due to deific interference. I believe ethics are quantifiable and researchable.

In order to get hold of it, I'd recommend studying those you consider admirable and ethical, and doing research into what others throughout history have defined as ethical, in order to get a broad spectrum of definitions. Once you've got that information, you can make educated, deliberate decisions as to what ethics are for you in the here and now, and how you will implement them in your own life.

Is morality about obeying a set of rules or is it about thinking carefully about consequences?

The latter. Obeying a simple set of rules is just obedience and/or fear of reprisal. To be moral I think one has to both recognize the potential for immorality, and actually choose to be moral. Furthermore, a rules set can become outdated -- even immoral itself -- as times change.

For example, take a culture which believes patriarchal bloodlines are of critical importance in both tracing legal property transmission and ensuring the survival of all the individuals which comprise that family line. In that situation, adultery potentially cheats the bloodline, steals from the entire family, and threatens everyone's survival. Stoning adulterers (especially the women) might be the horrific type of punishment necessary to scare all women into never raising their eyes to look at any man but their husbands.

However, in a culture where family is not critical for survival, women are not the property of the family's males, and marriage is freely entered into and exited, adultery is a far less important concept. Instead of being property theft from an entire male family line and a threat to everyone's survival, it has become more simply a broken promise between two individuals. It is still wrong if it involves dishonesty, but in that situation killing someone by beating them to death with a rock seems excessive -- immoral, in fact.

Therefore I conclude: morality is about thinking carefully about consequences, in order to avoid wrong actions.

When people say "I know murder is wrong," do they KNOW it is wrong, or just believe it very strongly?

This question brings up two questions in my mind: 1) What's the difference between "know" and "believe very strongly"? and 2) Umm... wouldn't you have to ask each person individually, in order to know for sure? ;)

More seriously, I'd guess at least initially people may believe murder is wrong because they've been taught so. However, once they've had some relevant personal life experience, such as surviving a violent physical attack or losing a loved one, they would be far more convinced of this.

Are there any differences between moral laws and society's laws? If there are, why is this?

Of course there are differences. A society can be no more moral than the most influential individuals of which it is comprised. If you have enough immoral individuals in a society (at least as we define immorality), its laws will reflect what they believe -- and be immoral.

We know there have been and are societies which condone(d) slavery, torture, physical abuse, or other acts we now consider immoral, for example. Also, we should remember that the concept of what is moral changes depending on which society we address, and in what time period. Even in our own society, slavery once used to be considered not just normal, but religiously moral.

What are human beings really like: selfish and greedy or generous and kind?

By "really like" I presume the question asks what would people be like if they were allowed to mature without distorting outside influences. Under that presumption, I think people would be a mix, but would lean towards generosity and kindness, because in the long run it feels better.

We are, after all, social animals. If you're selfish and greedy enough, no one will want to be around you or share with you, and you'll end up bitter and alone. If you're generous and kind, studies have shown you'll experience beneficial, enjoyable chemical changes within your body. Thus, not only will others prefer your company and share with you, but you'll feel better about life and yourself.

Are some people "better" at morality than others, or is everyone equally capable of being good?

I think everyone can be moral, given the opportunity and some personal introspection. It's a form of behavior which can be trained, after all. If we can teach autistic children how to get by in society, surely we can teach morality as well.

Are there good ways of teaching children to behave morally?

Of course. Ways of teaching which encourage and reward moral action, and which emphasize human dignity, are to be preferred over painful correction applied by the self-righteous. As R. S. Surtees noted, "More people are flattered into virtue than bullied out of vice."

Does anyone have the right to tell anyone else what goodness and wickedness are?

If we are speaking of adults and not children, then I see a difference between "tell" as in control the actions of another, and "tell" as in a gentle reminder. If what the question means involves the former definition, then no -- no one has an absolute right to define goodness and wickedness for others. That way lies tyranny.

On the other hand, I don't have a problem with someone who, upon seeing me about to do something wrong, quietly murmuring to me, "Are you sure you want to do that? Won't it hurt someone else if you do?" I feel this way because I know I may not have all the facts, and I don't really want to hurt anyone else without reason.

A gentle reminder, however, is as far as it goes for me. I feel people must make up their own minds. Once they have the facts, it's their duty as well as their responsibility to make their own choices, and live with the consequences of those actions.

The sole exception for me is the case of children. In order to protect children, adults have to control their actions until they can make good decisions for themselves. However, even there I think the smart adult will do their best to allow the child to search out the facts and learn to make those good decisions themselves.


That was interesting! Hope it was of some use to you all. If you should care to send me your answers to the above ten ethics questions, I could post them here as well. Enjoy! ;)

Reader Comments

11.22.04: Jim's thoughts

(and my replies)

Interesting... but I have never been a fan of philosophy -- they seem to like stupidly confusing situations. Like the idiotic pseudo-question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" they always seem to key the answer they want you to give. And I often disagree with their answer.

Isn't that lawyers, not philosophers? ;)