Module: Ethics

Module 3: Ethics

Ethics deals with rules of conduct designed by and for a particular group or culture.  It is an attempt by the group or culture to determine what is acceptable and what is not.  This is particularly difficult as many questions arise as to how we come to determine and accept these values.  Do these values arise naturally from our need to survive or are they man made or perhaps edicts from a higher power God, Buddha, Allah, Brahma.  Other questions arise as to a reward and punishment system.  Who or what takes precedence in meting out justice.  Relativism further clouds the issue as time place, situations, space, and progression can be added to the mix.

The taking of life has in general been regarded as a negative but is this a natural supreme being or man made rule?  What are exceptions to this rule?  What of human sacrificial rites, war, self-defense, defense of others?  What of suicide bombers?  Again is it a natural occurrence, an edict from a higher source, or man made rule that decides what is right and what is wrong?  Can it be that, what we have are man made rules that may be judged in one way and possibly another way in an afterlife?  Almost every decision we make carries with it a potential ethical issue.  Examples can be found in the products that we may consume.  The purchasing of shoes made by child labor in third world countries, products made from endangered species, e.g. ivory, rhinoceros horn, turtle shell, etc., the use of fossil fuel and its effect on the environment.  Even in the acts we choose to engage in or not to engage in may have ethical consequences.  Should one vote?  Should one not vote?  Should I stay neutral?  Should I engage in sex?  Should this be just to satisfy a biological urge or an act of love?  What effects will these choices create?  What is right and what is wrong?  What makes something right at a moment in time wrong at another moment in time?  Why is it that some acts prohibited in one culture are acceptable in another culture?  These are some of the questions that make up the subject matter of ethics.

The Origin of Ethics?

Some philosophers claim that ethics comes from some force or being.  Yet others claim that ethics comes from man alone.  When we look around, there is no other animal that celebrates the idea of ethics.  Only humans go so far to create elaborate rules placed into symbols called words; which in turn are codified into books; which in turn dictate acceptable behavior.  These symbols and the resulting adherence can result in acceptance or rejection, prosperity or poverty, even life or death.

Our modern rules in the United States evolve from trying to live within a large social group of people with many divergent views and backgrounds.  The rules are largely influenced by an evolution of philosophy and religion.  The distinction between the two is at times difficult to discern; what is morally called for and what is legally required.  For example, a house is on fire and someone from the second floor calls for help.  You see the person in time to help but rather than risk it you stand and watch the fire.  Morally you may want to help.  Legally unless you have some special relationship to the person you can stand around and do nothing and just watch with impunity.

A Few Milestones

Four to five million years ago, hominids roamed upright in Africa.  These apes without tails were our ancestors.  Their stature and cranial capacity were much smaller than that of modern man.  Their biped position freed their hands to make crude tools evidenced by unearthed obsidian hand axes.  The use of fire was found in caves near Beijing, carbon dated to 500,000 years ago.

Our first evidence of symbols being used are found at the caves of Chauvet Pont de Arc.  These cave wall paintings are found deep within the cave and in this dark chamber it is believed that it was a place of ritual rites of passage where the initiate was taught what was to be expected of him.  The carbon dating here is closer to 33,000 BCE (before the Christian era).  Some 29,000 years later stick figures demonstrating wrestling skills are depicted on the tomb walls of Beni Hassan (4,000 BCE).  (The illustrations while showing activities demonstrate what was acceptable. ) These pictograms were symbols informing the viewer of desired behavior within that society.

While physical evidence of acceptable behavior manifested in primitive art or tools can be dated, it is difficult to date when humankind began to consciously think of ethical issues, what is good, and what is bad beyond primal issues.

Before the scientific age phenomena not understood were attributed to the gods.  Greek mythology portrays gods as picaresque sometimes exhibiting the foibles of humans and sometimes playing a part in changing the course of destiny by interceding in mans affairs.  Even in this age of quarrelsome mercurial gods, by 5th century BCE.  man had progressed to create city-states with a leisure class.  Socrates (469-354 BCE), Plato (428-­354 BCE), and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) were great thinkers who were products of the era.

Socrates, the man who didn’t answer questions but who questioned answers died at his own hands when a jealous politician convinced the state to sentence him to die claiming that he incited the young of Athens.  Socrates could have easily escaped but stated he was a citizen of Athens and would abide by the decision of the state that gave him life and now was about to take it away.  The legacy left by Socrates is that words are powerful and can cause great good or great harm.  Moreover, that principles are worth dying for.

Plato was a student of Socrates.  Some say that, if it were not for Plato, Socrates would not be known.  Socrates left no written records.  This task was left thankfully to Plato.  Plato raises just about every question that is considered in today’s philosophy.  We know him best for The Republic, The Allegory of the Cave and the idea of a platonic relationship.  He divided knowledge into empirical and reason.  He was a moral absolutist and believed that morality should be decided by experts and not by the masses.

Aristotle thought the ordinary man should determine what is right and what is wrong.  He also believed in a trial and error system that eventually would realize the correct result, providing the individual was calm, rational, and devoted to finding the best result.  He favored the mean or middle road, courageous but not to the extent of fanaticism.  Aristotle was a student of Plato who eventually went to be the teacher of Alexander the Great.

The Christian era ushered in a completely different way of thinking of right and wrong.  In the Old Testament, the idea was retribution; an eye for an eye.  Christ taught do unto others as you would have done unto you.  Furthermore, he professed to forgive those who do wrong to you.  For those times and even today these are enormous promulgations.  Remember there was great persecution of Christians in the early years but time eroded Rome’s power, and by 400 A.D. Christianity continued to grow ever stronger.  The Pope held more power than did the Emperor.

Laws and Codes of Conduct

Although Christianity was still in its infancy, its written bible and the promise of an afterlife either in heaven if one was good or hell if one was bad created a consciousness in western society that has extended even to this day.  In the beginning, there was much intermixing of ideas, cultures, myths and cults of the time that went into forming Christianity.  Even politics entered the picture as St Augustine (354-430) tried to meld the church and the state together though both at the time were not really well defined.

St Augustine argued that the source of evil is lust and if one is to be virtuous one needed to control the body’s will.  Strangely enough, he also believed in predestination.  The doctrine that says whatever might happen was preordained and we really didn’t have a choice of the outcome.  Although the idea that God was all knowing and knew the course of one’s life even before living seems contrary to the argument we could possibly become virtuous by controlling our lust and our body.  (This would raise the question of free will that we controlled our own destiny.)  These questions to this day plague us.

Some 400 years were to pass before St. Augustine’s doctrine of predestination was to be challenged.  John Du Scot (800-877), an Irishman, was one of the first to publicly announce he did not believe that we were preordained to be either good or bad.  Few however were ready to risk excommunication and the wrath of the now powerful Catholic Church which continued to embrace the teachings of St. Augustine.  Roughly, another 400 years had to pass before the dogmas that influenced life in the dark ages were beginning to have to share space in the minds of men with new and thought provoking ideas.  Beginning somewhere near the time of John Du Scot humankind began to seek answers beyond those needed for daily existence.  By 1200, universities were being established throughout Europe.  Much of the new findings of these universities came in conflict with the old dogmas of the church.

Were it not for St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) the Catholic Church could have taken another path and possibly faded away rather than to continue to thrive as an institution and contribute to the moral conscience of the western world.  New ideas seemingly threatened the dogmas of the church.  Aquinas,  embraced learning,  stated that knowledge glorified rather than detracted from God’s plan.  Surely, had the church taken a hard stand it would merely be a matter of time and science before it would meet its demise.  Through Thomas Aquinas’ efforts, catholic education became more in the line with Aristotelian reasoning even allowing the questioning of dogmas while still holding steadfast to their beliefs.

The antithesis of moral consciousness was exemplified by the book “The Prince” written by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) a diplomat in the service of Cesare Borija.  In it, he illustrates unethical machinations for those aspiring to rule.  So deceitful were some of the methodologies that it became the very first book to be banned by the Catholic Church.  Surely, the book supported the position held by philosopher Thomas Hobbs (1859-­1952) that man was basically a nasty creature.  On the other hand Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed mans nature to be good.

Other philosophers took positions between the two poles.  Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) felt there were two types of virtues which we ascribe to, self-preservation and friendship.  Karl Marx (1818-1883) felt that social classes determined morals and that the dominant class will prevail.  Jeremy Bentham (1738-1842) felt morals should be decided by how people respond to pain and pleasure.  He also believed that all laws should be passed with this general code in mind.

Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed in choosing duty over want.  That is to say if stealing brought pleasure but became commonplace then society would break down.  For Kant the selection of duty was so inflexible not even a white lie would be tolerated.  Modern thinkers believed that rather than narrowing the range of acceptability one should widened the field by asking questions:  What is human nature?  What about the part that language plays in moral issues?  What part does past experiences play?  Is morality subjective or objective?  What of consciousness and morality?

Philosophers like David Flume (1711-1776), A.J. Ayers (1910-1989), Richard Hare (1919—) advocated study of words and their originate in order to understand human nature and morality.  Thinkers such as Sigmund Freud (1865-1939) and Jacques Lacan (1901) ushered in a new way of thinking in determining what is moral or ethical when confronting not only the conscious but also the subconscious and unconscious mind.

The aforementioned persons are just a few of the influential thinkers who have contributed to our vocabulary and understanding of the study of ethics.  Although they are not always associated with their main ideas their legacy is unknowingly exhibited in the decisions we subconsciously make on ethical issues.  Much of the ideologies we have briefly discussed may also be found as the basis of sophisticated legal decisions that govern this nation.


Study Question: What are the ethical dilemmas facing a Judo Instructor?