Ethics and morality are subjects that effect us all and should concern us all. If we live ethical lives we can have self-respect and a clear conscience. No amount of money or material possessions is as valuable as self respect.
Ethics is largely about how we should interact with other people and with other sentient beings; about the limits to personal freedom and the rules and guidelines that must be made and adhered to if we are to function at our best (both for our own benefit and for the benefit of others) and for the production of a fully functional and just society.
Ethics has, in the past, seemed to not be amenable to the scientific method, I believe that this is gradually changing: we must live sustainably or suffer the consequences that science has made plain; we must share the limited resources of our planet because scientific investigation has shown that we have reached the limits of the Earth's carrying capacity and we, humanity and other life forms, are "all in the same boat". So science is now providing justification for ethical living.
This page is all my personal views. I wonder why few other individuals write pages like this. Most such pages seem to be written for universities or other organisations.
Harry Messel (in 2009 an 86-year-old scientist) said that he "aimed to make the Earth a better place – and failed miserably". But it is probable that the world is a better place for his having lived – if he did more good than harm, while the world might not be a better place in his old age than it was in his youth, his influence would have been toward improvement. Most of us can do no more than that.
Edmund Burke said "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." There will always be those who will try to profit at the expense of others; their methods may or may not be legal, but they will, by definition, be immoral.
It is necessary then, that we must not be satisfied with living neutral lives, neither good nor bad; we must aim at living good lives if the world is to become no worse than it is. To live a neutral life will not provide a 'counter force' to those who are doing harm for selfish reasons.
The section on this page, How do we define good?, discusses several methods that we can use to decide which actions are ethical and which are unethical.
I will not take the subject further here than to ask the reader to consider the Internet and in particular Wikipedia from the point of view of altruism. In an age that is at least as dominated by selfish greed as any other (consider the economic collapse that was caused by the short-sighted avarice of the powerful corporate executives who largely run the early twenty-first century world), Wikipedia is a monument to altruism. Thousands of people around the world have contributed to this store of knowledge and wisdom and the great majority of them have received nothing in return, not even an acknowledgement for their work.
Beyond Wikipedia there are many Internet sights that provide information, free of charge, to the people of the world. If you want a recipe for anything, look it up on the Net!
Perhaps the Internet is dominated by sites that are designed to make money for someone, but for those who look there is a commendable amount of generosity to be seen and enjoyed there too.
From Encyclopaedia Britannica on The Golden Rule: "Its negative form is to be found ... in the writings of the two great Jewish scholars Hillel (1st century BC) and Philo of Alexandria (1st centuries BC and AD), and in the Analects of Confucius (6th and 5th centuries BC). It also appears in one form or another in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Seneca."
Socrates is recorded as saying "I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the World". Much of Socrates teaching was about ethics, looking for the greater good and how to achieve it; he gave much thought to the citizen's duty toward the state. This statement seems to imply that he felt an obligation to the world as a whole, not just to his own state; remarkable for a man of Socrates' time, even in the twenty-first century most people have far narrower outlooks. In this present age, where Mankind has a profound impact on the global environment and the majority seem not to give much consideration to the future of Mankind, I think we need to look even further. We need to think of ourselves as being citizens of the biosphere; that is, the zone on or near the surface of the Earth that contains all known life. It follows, I believe, that we should apply the Golden Rule, not just to our fellow humans, but to the biosphere. I will call this the Greater Golden Rule.
As a very simple example, the Golden Rule would forbid us dumping our rubbish over the fence into our neighbour's yard. The Greater Golden Rule forbids us dumping our waste gasses into the atmosphere if that dumping will do harm to the biosphere.
I believe that the Greater Golden Rule comes close to defining what ethics is all about. To break it, even with some 'justifying' greater good in mind, is risky; in the case of a state using torture – to require that employees break the Golden Rule, in such a terrible and systematic way, would be criminal.
Can immoral actions ever be justified as a means to a greater good?I will argue that it is rarely acceptable to attempt to bring about a good long-term outcome by means that are bad. Too often we do not achieve our long-term outcome; then all we have to show is our immoral action in making the attempt.
This is not so simple as it might at first site seem. Taxing the rich is the means of achieving the end of helping the poor. Taxing the rich would be immoral if we did not, by doing so, produce a greater good by helping the poor. Here the means, while being bad in itself, is plainly seen as the first step toward producing a greater good. The world is not black and white, we must often compromise; but we must take great care in doing so.
The USA dropped two million tonnes of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam war. Their aim may have been, at least in part, to bring democracy to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but they lost the war. So the means – the bombing, a terrible act – certainly was not justified by the end, because the desired end was not achieved.
The Nazis of Germany had a vision of a great
future when they started World War Two; they achieved nothing but death and
destruction. The Coalition of the USA, the UK and Australia at least
professed achieving some greater good when they invaded Iraq in 2003; as far
as can be seen in mid 2006 they achieved nothing good, but did a great deal of
harm, including causing the deaths of tens of thousands or Iraqi civilians.
As an example of the former, suppose that a young girl asks you if you think she is beautiful (you know she is not), do you lie because it will make her feel good? As an example of the latter, suppose you promise to do something for someone; you later realise that if you are to keep your promise it will mean that your family will suffer some loss; should you break your promise?
Also see Honesty, elsewhere.
Can torture be justified in some cases?(The use of torture in general is also discussed on this page.)
Those who would have Australia adopt the use of torture say that its use would be justified in those cases where a smaller wrong (the use of torture) results in a larger good (for example, the saving of lives threatened by terrorists); that is, they claim that the means would be justified by the end. The greatest fault in this argument is that the wrong is carried out, but then the larger good may never be achieved.
These people typically give as an example the situation where many lives have been threatened by a terrorist group, one of the terrorists is in custody and may have information that could save innocent lives. There are several ways in which this could go wrong, the 'terrorist' may be tortured and no lives saved.
One thing that must be considered here is the question of your credibility – if you are dishonest people will remember that and when you say something in the future people will not know whether they can believe it. This is not only bad for you, it diminishes your friends and family because we are defined not only by ourselves, but by those around us.
A society cannot function at its best if we cannot trust each other.
On the Australian ABC TV current affairs show Four Corners, 7th June 2010, mining billionaire Clive Palmer said "I'm sure I can get any of my employees to say what I want to say [sic] if I pay their salary." I find it difficult to imagine how expecting one's employees to lie on demand can ever be morally justified and would hope that many of Palmer's employees would not lie just because he asked them to.
Also see Is lying sometimes justified?.
I believe that would be a great mistake, for the following reasons:
When deciding on 'the good' it has often been thought sufficient to consider other people. With the harm that has been done to our environment in the recent past (for example damage to the ozone layer and the extinction of species caused by greenhouse warming) it has become clear that we must consider the whole of the part of the earth that supports life, the biosphere.
There are simple actions that would almost universally be considered good; for example, collecting rubbish from a roadside and disposing of it properly. Other actions, generally of a more complex nature, may be thought good in one age or in one society, and less good in another. Clearing scrub to produce open farmland was strongly encouraged in Australia in the nineteenth century with the result of widespread soil salinisation and other problems in the twentieth century. Introducing Old-World animals into Australia, to make Australia more like Europe, was once thought good; it has caused huge and irreparable harm to the Australian environment.
Confucius suggested that a gentleman (who he defined as a man who lives a moral life rather than a man of noble birth) would take as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover what will pay.
The Golden Rule, 'do to others what you would like them to do to you' is one way that you can decide on whether an action is ethical or not. Another is to consider 'what if everybody behaved that way?'
What if everybody behaved that way?It may help to decide whether a particular behaviour is ethical by considering what would result if everybody adopted it. For example, if one person throws his rubbish out of his car window little harm is done, if everybody did it our roadsides would quickly become a mess.
This point is especially appropriate in this age of greenhouse warming/climate change. Consider your life-style and think what would happen to the world if everybody behaved like you do. If you live the life of a high-consumption Australian or USian, think how much worse the climate change problem would be if everyone in the world was responsible for producing as much carbon dioxide and for consuming as much petroleum as you.
The Australian government has tried to excuse Australia's very high production of greenhouse gasses on a number of occasions by saying that the total greenhouse gas produced by Australia is a very small percentage of the world's total. Australia produces about 1.5% of the world's total annual greenhouse gasses, but Australia has only about 0.3% of the world's population. So, using the rule, 'what if everybody behaved that way?', if every person in the world was responsible for the same amount of greenhouse gas production as the average Australian then the world's total would increase five fold – an absolute disaster! This ethical question is discussed in greater depth in my page on greenhouse and Australia.
The greenhouse/climate change problem has come about because people have not considered this moral question. No-one has bothered about the amount of CO2 that they are responsible for releasing because it is trivial in the big picture; but they don't go on to think that they are one of six billion people and they have a moral obligation to use no more than one six billionth of the earth's resources.
A number of Australians who work in the mining industry air-commute to their work. For example they might fly a couple of thousand kilometres from Perth to the NW of Western Australia every few weeks. Consider the amount of plane fuel used and greenhouse gasses produced. What if everybody did something similar? Perhaps these people, as individuals, don't have a choice; perhaps that is the only way they can get to and from that job; the fact remains that it is unethical because they are producing more than their share of CO2.
For myself (as an example) I decided that the best I could do, under the circumstances, is to continue to try to dispel the myths about wind power and contrast it to the proven harm done by the coal industry. (Wind power can, to some extent, replace coal-fired electricity generation.) There is a great unjustified mistrust of wind power in Australia and insufficient recognition of how bad coal is. From experience it seems that there is no point in trying to change the minds of those who have an entrenched hatred of wind power, but I can work on the many who are unconvinced one way or the other.
Others will decide that they can do the most good in entirely other directions.
Philosopher Peter Singer wrote a book titled 'The most good you can do'. It leans toward a philanthropic approach: how you can achieve the most good with the money that you can spare or whether you can do more good by getting a highly paid job so that you can afford to give more. Singer is well known for his advocacy of animal rights and in particular the cruelty involved in modern factory farming. Singer's book is a good place to start, but I hope that you will also consider some of the points made in this section.
Some people will come to the conclusion that they can do the most good by getting involved in activism of one form or another especially if they have little money to spare.
What other good can you do?
How I have tried to do good:
A period once a week for all students to study philosophy and ethics would be well justified and productive as well. Learning to think critically would make all learning more effective.
Failing a dedicated period for all students to study philosophy and ethics, many schools have a weekly session during which the children can receive religious instruction. Those children who do not associate themselves with any particular religion, or a religion for which no instructor is available, often are allowed to use this period for revision or personal study. This period could be used to study ethics, and the children could be given the choice of whether to study religion or ethics. Learning ethics (or philosophy or critical thinking) would be a much more productive use of the childrens' time than learning religion.
Ideally teachers trained in ethics would be used, but if they are not available then volunteers from the community might be able to be found.
"Every nation has the government it deserves", Joseph LeMaistre.Citizens of democracies have, I believe, a responsibility to keep a check on the actions of their governments. While the urging of one citizen will have little effect, it will have an effect.
Many citizens of democracies complain that the only say they have in the government of their country is to vote at election time. This is a pathetic excuse that lazy people use to justify their apathy. If they were sincere in their stated desire to modify the way their country is governed they could:
Governments, whether local, regional, federal or international (the UN), tend to place too much emphasis on economical matters while tending to neglect ethical matters. This is much the same thing as thinking short-term rather than thinking long-term. An immoral decision based on economical considerations might have short-term benefits, but will probably have long-term disadvantages.
Governments also tend to favour 'development' over conservation. Perhaps it is easier to produce a visible outcome; if a new industry is established in a town then the mayor can feel that this is something that he has done for the town. If, on the other hand, he was to protect remnant roadside vegetation, the result would be less obvious, although, in the very long term, perhaps more important. (Profits and income, though necessary, are transient; biodiversity, once lost, will take millions of years to recover.)
Philosopher Peter Singer writing in The Age, 3rd April 2008
Society's refusal to greatly and urgently reduce the rate of production of greenhouse gasses is going to condemn future generations to living on a badly damaged planet.
Why, then, do most Australians and people of the USA produce far more than their share of greenhouse carbon dioxide when they must know by now that the capacity of the world to handle this is overloaded? Any calculation of the amount of carbon dioxide that the world can sustainably handle shows that, per person on earth, it is a small fraction of the amounts produced by the people of Australia and the USA.
In most cases it would be easy for these people to
reduce the amount of greenhouse gas that they
produce; buy smaller cars, use public transport more and your private car
Consuming more than your share when you know that all will suffer for your consumption in the long run is certainly unethical. The great majority of Australians and USians must be aware of the greenhouse/climate change problem. I think the answer is that these people simple do not think of it in these terms; they are just doing what those around them are doing, they cannot see the trees for the forest. The citizens of Australia and the USA need to be educated about greenhouse responsibilities, but their governments have little or no interest in lowering greenhouse emissions so will not invest anything significant in this education. (One of the major political parties in Australia, the Liberals are particularly lacking in ethical standards on this point.)
The term originates from the Commons, or common land, of Britain. Britain had land reserved for the use of all. Individuals could run a few stock on the commons or plant a small garden and grow some vegetables or fruit trees. The 'Tragedy' comes from the fact that, so long as everyone considered the needs of their neighbours and remembered that each had a responsibility to protect the commons as well as a right to use the commons all was well, but the good of all could be damaged by the greed of a few. If 90% of those who used the commons did so carefully and responsibly, the remaining 10% could still overstock the land and damage it. If the 90% reduced the numbers of their stock when they saw that overstocking was a problem, the 10% could increase the numbers of their stock, increase their profits and increase the damage done to the land.
This problem is covered by the question What if everybody behaved that way?, discussed elsewhere on this page.
This is exactly what we see with greenhouse/climate change. Instead of some people in a local community sharing some common land there is the global community sharing the atmosphere. When there were fewer people on the Earth and we all produced only a little greenhouse gas all was well, but when our numbers multiplied and some of us started producing far more greenhouse gasses than others climates started to change. But then people realised that if some tried to live within the limits of the capacities of the Earth's natural systems, but a few did not, the tragedy would continue.
The wealthy nations have done most of the damage. They have caused most of the gasses to be released into the atmosphere to cause the level of climate change that we are seeing in the early twenty-first century.
What we need is for an agreement between most nations (we cannot wait for
an agreement between all nations) to somehow share the Earth's natural
systems without excessive damage.
Those nations that will not agree voluntarily will have to be induced
to conform by pressure from the others.
What standard of ethics?Should one try to maintain the highest standard of ethics when one sees much lower standards in others? Or should one be content to just maintain a little higher standard than that observed in others in one's society?
I'll give an example. It is wrong to damage the environment more than one needs to; as mentioned above, it is impossible to live without doing some harm. Mankind's production of greenhouse gasses is altering the climate. It follows, therefore, that we should, as individuals, try to minimise the greenhouse gasses that we are responsible for. Most of Australia's electricity (most of the world's electricity?) is generated by burning coal – one of the main causes of greenhouse gas production. If we want to minimise our own contributions what should we do?
If one buys green electricity, should one go to the expense of buying 100% green electricity, when most other people don't buy any? Would buying 25% green electricity be enough?
I'd suggest that one does what one reasonably can; what one can afford to; that one maintains the highest standard of morals that one can reasonably achieve.
That other people have low ethical standards should not effect one's own ethical standards. Bad behaviour in others does not excuse bad behaviour in oneself. On the other hand to live shivering in the cold rather than switching on a heater, because one believes it unethical to consume electricity and so add to the greenhouse problem, I would suggest is excessive. (I think Buddha said something to the effect of moderation in all things, walk the middle path?)
Plato held, in The Republic, that to be moral is in one's own interest, that even from a selfish perspective morality is the best course.
So, if running a car is something that is unsustainable if everyone in the world were to do it, can we justify our cars? I suspect not.
Of course the size of the vehicle and its fuel consumption is also an important factor. A large four-wheel-drive (4WD, SUV) car could easily consume twice the fuel of a small car. (USians call 4WDs SUVs – sports utility vehicles – sometimes BinLadenmobiles.)
I use a car. I can't see any reasonable alterative. But I try to minimise my car use, and try to avoid running a car that is bigger than I need. It's important to think about your consumption and your contribution to global pollution; if you think about it perhaps you will become a part of the solution rather than being just another part of the problem.
An interesting page with an American point of view on SUVs is at Santa Clara University.
The graph below indicates that if we can share the use of small cars
rather than using a big 4WD on our own we might reduce our greenhouse
impact about nine fold. It also shows that sharing our vehicles,
whether big 4WDs or minis, can greatly improve their sustainability,
and therefore their ethical justifiability.
(In the graph I have, for simplicity, considered the driver to be a
I thought it would be interesting to make some calculations on the total amount of fuel it had consumed, total CO2 emitted, and compare this with more common and higher consumption cars.
As of September 2016 our Jazz had travelled 170,000 kilometres; the calculations below are based on that and a fuel price of Aust$1.20/Litre.
The cost difference column shows how much more a larger car would have cost us for fuel than the Jazz. (This does not consider the higher capital cost of a larger vehicle, lost income from money invested, and higher maintenance costs of larger vehicles. On top of that a larger car would have required more garage space.) The Emissions difference column show how much more carbon dioxide would have been emitted had we run larger cars instead of our Jazz.
Another important factor is the convenience of easier parking for a smaller
Wealth brings with it advantages. Wealthy people have options, the very poor often have few choices on how they can live their lives. Wealth brings with it power, poverty equals powerlessness.
Consider my life today compared with an African peasant farmer; for the sake of the exercise think of the two of us as if we had no past. I, who am retired and financially comfortable, get out of bed and write a bit on my computer before having breakfast and going out to water some trees that I have planted along some roadsides. All things that I have chosen to do.
The African peasant probably gets out of bed and is straight into work that must be done, work that he/she has no choices in. His breakfast is much more frugal than mine, his health is more precarious, he could not afford to buy a computer even if he wanted one, he probably can not be at all confident that he will be able to feed himself, or his family, in the year to come.
Why should I be so well off and the African not? Is this situation just?
I suggest that those of us who are wealthy have a responsibility to share with those who are poor. If you have a much larger house than you need, if you have more bathrooms than you can use, if you regularly have holidays on luxury liners or in five star hotels, look to your ethics.
Animals have even less power than African peasants. Those of us who have
options certainly have responsibilities to animals.
I'm still physically reasonably fit, but at the age of 58 I believe I'd have a hard time finding paid employment if I tried.
Is consuming the products of other people's labour, while producing little oneself, ethical? I suspect that Carl Marx would have had something to say about it.
From the point of view of ethicsIt has become a tradition of Anzac Day – Australia's commemoration of what is held to be a major historical marker in the making of the Australian nation – for a large number of Australian and New Zealanders to gather at Anzac Cove on Gallipoli for the dawn service. The photo on the right shows how much rubbish the visitors leave behind them.
Dumping your rubbish for someone else to pick up is not the most unethical act you can do, but it is unethical, and I suspect it demonstrates an unethical mind-set. It is a question of self versus society. The person who dumps his rubbish on the ground is showing that he/she believes that his convenience, in getting rid of his rubbish quickly and easily, is more important than the consequences of his actions on others. He apparently believes that he is more important than the place he is damaging or that he is more important than those who must come later and clean up. This same concept is shown by the US and Australian governments by their insistence on the right to dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to the detriment of the whole world.
In the Anzac Cove case, this is harder to understand since one would think
that the place would have to have some 'spiritual' significance for these
people who go to the trouble of visiting it. Yet they have no hesitation in
rubbishing it? Do they just not think about the contradiction?
In the case of my country, Australia, the period from 1996 to 2007 was dominated by the policies of Prime Minister John Howard. He presumably was motivated by a desire to 'improve' Australia, but he aligned it with the USA in that country's wars of global domination and he was George W. Bush's greatest ally in slowing the world's response to the massive climate change problem. He dominated the parliamentary Liberal Party to the point where very few other members seemed to have found the will or courage to speak out against him. Yet while his Prime Ministership was largely negative for Australia, and certainly for the world, I think it might be simplistic to just say that he was a 'bad' man.
'White collar' criminals such as embezzlers seem to have traditionally been thought less 'bad' than violent criminals, although one wonders which have caused the most harm. Surely the seriousness of a crime, or unethical act, should be measured by the amount of harm done.
Then shouldn't we measure the harm done by greedy corporate bosses according to the amount of financial harm that their rapaciousness does to other people? For example, a public company chief executive officer who takes two million dollars a year more than he needs from the profits of that public company can be thought of as taking a thousand dollars a year from each of a thousand employees of that company and a thousand dollars a year from each of a thousand small investors in that company. This surely causes unnecessary hardship to a great many people; unnecessary because research has shown that increasing income, beyond the minimum level required to sustain a comfortable lifestyle, produce very little, if any, increased happiness. The greed of the corporate CEO, while doing harm to many, hardly improves the lot of the CEO himself!
Considered this way, are avaricious corporate CEOs among the worst, most unethical, people in the modern world?
As I got older I developed the idea that while I could not return the favour to the individuals who helped me – in many cases I had lost track of them – I could help other people and at least 'balance my ledger' in that I would do good for at least as many people as had done good to me.
I do not recall ever discussing this principle with anyone until a visit to some long-time friends in England in 2004. They took my family and me to an expensive dinner and refused to allow me to pay any part of the cost. When they realised that I did not feel comfortable that they had paid the whole cost of the restaurant meal, they explained that they had many favours done for them in the past and they felt that by doing favours to us they were moving a step toward balancing their 'good deed ledger'.local park, clean up rubbish, help to increase biodiversity, or we can get involved in any of a number of campaigns to slow climate change, stop coal mining, etcetera.
There are two things that we must be careful of here. First, it is certainly wrong to punish some people for wrongs done by others, whether or not those others happen to belong to the same group as those who did wrong. Second, our anger can harm ourselves.
Anger and hatred do at least as much harm to the person who feels them as they do to the person to whom they are directed. It is impossible to be happy at the same time as being angry and hating. We all want to be happy.
I believe that it is a valid aim in life to be happy, so long as that happiness is based on a solid foundation. One cannot meaningfully be happy, for example, by taking drugs. Certainly one will never become happy by collecting material possessions. We may feel some satisfaction if we obtain revenge, but it is not the way to happiness.
So, do we allow people to do bad things to us and 'get away with it'? No, I do not advocate that, sometimes we should seek justice; but we must not allow our own anger and hatred to harm us. Overcome them, be happy! Consider too, that the person who has harmed you may well learn in later life that he has done wrong and, in so doing, has harmed himself; what sort of long term happiness can anyone obtain by harming others?
People change. Many go through periods in their lives when they behave
badly; most eventually move out of that error. If possible, we should
help them see that it is an error rather than become angry or hate them.
Easy to say, hard to do!
I don't remember who the writer was, but I remember reading an excellent analogy. For every theory that may be true or may be false (as an example think of organic evolution) imagine a horizontal wire attached to a wall. On the wire representing evolution there is a bead. At each end of the wire is a cup. If the bead is pushed along the wire until it falls into the left cup this indicates that you totally disbelieve that organic evolution happens. If the bead is in the right cup then it indicates that you have absolutely no doubt that organic evolution is a fact. We must all endeavour to keep all our beads on the wires and not in the cups.
We must never believe that we 'know' what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. We certainly should pursue this knowledge, but we should always retain a sufficiently open mind to admit that we could be wrong. One of the greatest of the many evils that have come from religion is the unquestioning belief in being correct while others are in error.
Looking at the balance of good and bad; some people will be offended if they see their national flag burned, but perhaps more good will be achieved by encouraging them to think about whether their nationalism can really be justified. My page on Patriotism discusses similar concepts. Patriotism is very close to nationalism. We should be thinking of the Earth, rather than an individual nation, as our home; nationalism/patriotism was probably never a good idea.
Nationalism implies either "The government of my country is always right in its dealings with other nations" or "I will always support my country, whether it is right or wrong". The first assertion is plainly factually wrong, the second is morally wrong; both are dangerous.
Some people claim that Australians (or whatever your national group is) fought in the First and Second World Wars (or whatever your great conflicts were) for the flag. Surely they did not. Surely they fought for principals such as freedom from tyranny and the right to pursue happiness in their own ways. I would hope they did anyway.
Governments have an interest in the patriotism or nationalism of citizens. They can use it to obtain the support of their citizens against some real or imagined outside threat (as the US and Australian government have done very effectively in the fake 'war against terror'). I see no ethical argument in favour of nationalism or the sanctity of a national flag.
Extract from 'Do The Right Thing', by Thomas G. Plante
I have dealt with this argument in greater depth in The great fallacy. As it relates to ethics, it shows shallow thinking.
Everyone on earth has a responsibility to use no more than a fair share of the planet's resources, including its capacity to take care of wastes.
The 'too small to make a difference' argument, as it relates to Australia and greenhouse gasses, is shown to be false if one considers the 'What if everybody behaved that way?' test.
Problems with capitalism as it has been practised up to 2010;
golden age of more equality, democracy, freedom of speech and action than in any other time in history, perhaps the greatest departure from equality is an uneven and unfair distribution of wealth (property under another name).
Those who have wealth have more power than those who don't. Those who have the good fortune to be born into a wealthy family will most likely grow up to have much more power and privilege than those who are born into poor families. The obscenely wealthy, including the corporate bosses, have far more power over politicians in democratic nations than do the common people. (Yet the fundamental principle on which their lives is based, greed, is unethical. At the opposite end of the spectrum to the greedy corporate bosses are the numerous common people who freely volunteer much of their time for the public good – and they have little political power.)
There is an entrenched and generally overlooked injustice here that is as great as any in the modern world.
Was it ever thus? I suppose even in the first civilisations there was a recognition of private property; and the more of it that an individual owned, the greater his status and power over his neighbours. Hunter-gatherers, because of their life-style, would not have been able to 'own' much property, but even if they had better spears and axes than the others in their group they would have some advantage.
I am retired and I own my own house. For that reason alone I am financially better off than most of those of my countrymen (Australians) who are retired but do not own their own houses. At the most fundamental level, what does 'own my own house' mean? The house and I are not joined together in any way that is physically different to the relationship the retiree who rents has with his home. The other fellow has to pay someone else – a person who has no physical connection to the house – for the privilege of using the house. Ownership is a convention that goes back into prehistory and that we all accept without much thought. How ethically justified is it?
Thieves try to redistribute property. Probably in most cases, thieves remove property from the better off and redistribute it to people who are less financially well off: that is, to themselves. (Although very often thieves steel from their neighbours, who are probably little better off than themselves.) Many of us would think that a redistribution of wealth from those who have the most to those who have the least could be ethically justified; but not many would approve of thieves who take the process into their own hands.
If wealth gives people power and advantage and those who are born into families or countries that are wealthy have an unfair advantage compared to others, is this situation acceptable in a world that supposedly values equal rights for all?
Communist regimes have tried separating people from some of their property; making all the means of production the property of the State, and attempting to make everyone equal and an employee of the State. It didn't work, at least partly because if people are to work their hardest they seem to have to have some advantage to themselves to aim for. (Communism also failed because those who gained power were either corrupt or became corrupted by that power and their aim became holding onto power first and foremost.)
We have evolved to look after ourselves first, and consider the needs of others second; and those others whose needs we are most likely to give most consideration to will be our families and probably then our friends and associates.
Wealth seams to be justified if it has been fairly earned, but those who have got their wealth with disproportionally little effort compared to others have much less ethical right to their wealth.
From an ethical point of view it is interesting to note that 'Action on climate change', the most important of all the points for coming generations and the future of the planet, is ranked last. Those concerns that have the highest ranking have the more immediate and personal impact.
When people judge the importance of concerns such as these, their priorities are based not on the 'big picture' so much as on:
Mazlow's hierarchy of needs is relevant here.
Except in war. In war fighting and killing can not only become acceptable but even admirable – simply because they are sanctioned by the state. We are expected to accept that killing the enemies of the state is OK; it is the brave and right thing to do.
What an absurd, ridiculous and contradictory situation! In everyday life we are often highly critical of our governments. We don't generally trust our governments, and considering the level of corruption we Australians are seeing in the Abbott and Morrison governments, the way they are pandering to the fossil fuel lobby and ignoring the need to act for the good of all people and of the planet, we would have to be stupid to trust them.
Yet if our government decides that our country needs to go to war against some other country we become willing to fight, to try to kill 'the enemy' and die if necessary – because our government has somehow convinced us that right is on our side and killing has become the 'right thing to do'.
I've written more on this subject on another page.
Laws are made by those in power in nations. Almost invariably the main aim of those in power is to hold onto that power.
At the time of writing (October 2020) perhaps the greatest disconnect between ethics and the law is in regard to climate change. Governments around the world support, and are supported by, powerful lobby groups such as the fossil fuel industries; this applies particularly in my country, Australia. Ethical imperatives dictate quiet unambiguously that urgent action on climate change should take precedence over most other matters, yet governments are resisting this.
Supporting the fossil fuel industries against reason and against the speedy development of renewable energy that we must adopt if our grandchildren and our planet are to have a future not greatly inferior to the present should be against the law, but is not.
As I have written elsewhere, for a person in a position of power to dishonestly support the fossil fuel industries and oppose action to reduce greenhouse emissions is the greatest crime in the history of mankind, yet criminals like the US's President Donald Trump, Australia's Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison are not being held to account at all.
However, there are a few relevant philosophical rules to which I can think of no exceptions:
What this leads to, of course, is that there are no absolutes in ethics; there is no prescriptive ethical right or wrong. We could ask, "What use, then, is ethics?" Its use is to help us see clearly, to view a situation from several angles, to broaden our outlook, to see things from the point of view of others, especially those others who have less power and 'rights', such as non-human animals.
If there are no hard and fast rules, how can we know justice when we see it? Intuition? Surely not, intuition is terribly fallible!
In truth, intuition will play a part, but we must try to minimise it. Perhaps if we study ethics we can train our intuition? Surely right behaviour is important enough to justify some study.
In a practical case we can refer the situation and posible resolutions or actions to the rules that ethicists have given us, and those that we have worked out for ourselves, and see if they fit. "Would that action accord to rule A?, rule B?, rule C?" If it fails to fit several such tests it is more likely wrong than right. If there seem to be several answers that are nearly equally likely to be acceptable, we must give the point very careful consideration from several angles.
What rules or guidelines, while not being absolutes, are valuable in helping us find the correct answer?
Finally, I should say that I have found some questions in ethics to be dilemmas (having no satisfactory answer). For example, how should a nation treat refugees? On the one hand there is an obligation to help people in need of help, on the other hand there is a responsibility to protect the rights and liberty of those who will come after us. More specifically, if we in Australia allow unrestricted access to refugees, as would seem to be the kind action, no matter what their beliefs and ideals, do we risk beliefs such as Islam becoming entrenched and eventually a threat to all Australians' right to live as they chose?
In no particular order...
On this page...