When examining ethical theories, we have a number of options. We could simply describe the theory and identify the weak points (what it doesn’t seem to cater for) and the strengths (what it seems good at doing). So, for example, we might think that utilitarianism is particularly bad at defining the rights of a minority group because it tends towards the majority’s interests, but is good in public service management where tax spending should benefit as many people as possible, or as many of the more needy people as possible (through health, education and social care, for instance). A theory such as natural law seems very good a providing clear guidance for knowing what is right and wrong and guidance on how to build a strong community, but it seems to have quite a narrow view of what human nature is so doesn’t seem to be helpful for those who seem quite different from what is commonly believed to be the norm.
A second way to judge an ethical theory is by testing it on issues. This is popular in some AS/A2 level examination papers which might ask you to apply Kant to the question of a right to abortion on demand. In this kind of examination we see what bits of the ethical theory tell us about how we might decide what is right in the example dilemma, and then look to see what the ethical theory does well in that process, and what it falls short on.
Here is a third option which comes from Steven Tipton (Getting saved from the sixties. Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural Change (Los Angeles and London: University of California, 1984). Tipton provides an analysis of the exercise of authority and judgement. In other words, a basis on which we might pick apart two of the really important parts of moral decision making – what the source of authority is, and how we decide, or judge what to do, or what is right.
Tipton’s system is based around 5 basic questions which you can ask of a theory:
1) How is the theory oriented towards moral knowledge?
2) How does the theory pose the question “what should I do”?
3) How can an action be determined to be right by the theory?
4) What sort of character trait does the theory uphold?
5) How does the theory resolve disagreement?
6) To what extent does the theory offer specific moral guidance on given acts?
You can ask these questions of any ethical system to try and pick apart the elements and workings of the theory in very specific and applied ways. This should throw up far more useful pieces of information about areas of strength and weakness in the workings of the theory and its presuppositions.
Tipton also proposes four styles in his ‘taxonomy’ (a kind of classification system) into which he groups ethical theories. Now you can consider an ethical theory under Tipton’s taxonomy and how well it holds up. He distinguishes between four ideal styles of ethical evaluation which ethical theories tend to fit into
c. Consequential (or utilitarian)
d. And expressive
These four styles constitute a taxonomy, a pattern of classification with a number of dimensions based on giving answers to questions. Ethical theories tend to fit into one or other category.
In each answer to a question, apart from the last, the order of answers reflect the kind of ideal style listed above (a-d).
What is the general orientation and kind of knowledge in the moral theory? Is it inspired by a truth revealed through faith, reason the consequences or intuition?
In posing the moral question ‘What should I do?’ is it really asking:
– ‘What does God command me to do?’
– ‘What is the relevant rule or principle?’
– ‘What do I want? What act will most satisfy it?’, or
– ‘What’s happening here and now and what is a fitting response?’
What are the ‘right making’ characteristics of a moral action from the view of this theory? Is it:
– right because the authority commands it
– right because it conforms to the relevant rules and principles
– right because it produces the most good consequences, or
– right because it constitutes the most fitting response to the situation?
Are there any cardinal virtues about a moral person, from the view of this theory?
Is it about…
– obedience to authority
– rationality in working out moral principles and acting on them
– efficiency in maximizing the satisfaction of all desires, or
– the sensitivity of feeling to the situation and response to the person?
How does the theory resolve disagreement? By:
– better understanding of the faith
– better reasoning
– better interpretation of the evidence, or
– better intuition in the social situation
How specific is the theory in prescribing guidance?
– does it contain clear commandments
– does it simply rule out actions which clash with reason
– does it prescribe less as you should follow your intuition and feeling, or
– does it give few prescriptions beyond looking at the results.
In this last case the answers given do not match the order of a-d above.
With Tipton’s system we can do a number of things:
1. We can ask an ethical theory the six questions Tipton outlines and consider how effectively the theory answers each. Does this suggest where areas of weakness or strength might lie? Tipton’s taxonomy offers language for criticising ethical theories.
2. We can see the extent to which the ethical theories fit into Tipton’s four groupings.
3. We can see if we can improve on both Tipton’s taxonomy and his groups.
Ethical theories can be viewed in different ways and ethical thinkers sometimes have writings which suggest different kinds of ethical thinking.
Situation ethics is quite often called relativist. In fact it is classified as an example of a relativist theory by exam boards and some books. This is not surprising. Situation ethics does not propose definite instructions on right and wrong actions. It is not deontological. Situationism prefers to decide the right and wrong thing according to what is believed to be the most loving thing to do in the particular situation. So the right thing to do is relative to the situation, hence the idea that Situationism is relativistic. This point was made by Joseph Fletcher’s critics. And yet there is an aspect of Situationism which is not flexible and that is the principle of doing the thing that will bring about the most loving end. The principle is not flexible in the same way the principle in utilitarianism is not flexible. That principle suggests the right thing to do is that which brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. So the principle can be a fixed principle – an absolute, while the actions classified as right or wrong vary depending upon what is indicated in the principle and the Situation that the principle is being applied.
Sometimes our tendency to want to put things into tidy categories can also distort how we see a Philosopher. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, is usually associated with natural law and ‘categorised’ as a deontological thinker. Natural law is based on an idea of what it means to be human and the main ways of living that are good for a human. These ways must be followed and so indicate that some actions are good and others bad, depending on whether they support the idea of what it means to be human. However, that is not the only thing that Aquinas thought about moral decision making. When considering war he did not follow this approach precisely. He could have applied natural law to war and concluded that the taking of life is wrong because it opposed the life of human beings. Aquinas notes this but goes onto write about the just war theory which involves a degree of proportionality. Aquinas supports the idea that war can be just if it is by the command of the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged, if it is being fought for a just cause and if the intention behind the war is for the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. So those who wage war justly aim at peace. Here, Aquinas is taking account of certain external factors, other than the action of killing itself. So he is not being strictly deontological in every action in this case, because he recognizes that there are greater interests in wars which better protect human nature. It is because of this that Aquinas may be interpreted as being a bit more flexible than otherwise thought. Particular situations may require different actions at different times. There is also his writing on conscience and how that might relate to natural law and just war theory. It is not surprising that one of the most brilliant thinkers and writers in Western philosophy and theology should make so many contributions to ethical thinking.
These two examples serve as a warning to be careful about how we categorise theories and thinkers and explain partly why there are so many different views of the people and their ideas.
Here are four questions which we can ask of an ethical theory to try and decide what its strengths and limitations might be.
1) Are the fundamental assumptions made by the ethical theory correct?
Most ethical theories rest on a set of fundamental assumptions about the world. For instance, utilitarianism, in its hedonistic form, rests on an assumption that human beings pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Natural moral law rest on an assumption that there are clearly observable purposes to human life. We can ask a few questions about this. Firstly is the assertion backed up? Is there a reasonable argument to show where this claim about ‘how things are’ comes from? Is it observable or can it be proven in some other way? Is it a very convincing assumption or one that throws up a few problems? Perhaps there is evidence that counters the claim which needs to be dealt with if the assumption is to stand. Perhaps we can agree on what the purpose is of human life, or perhaps there are different views on the question. It might be that an assumption includes something which actually throws up more questions. So the hedonistic utilitarian needs to explain why it is that things that some people avoid because they give pain, others pursue as if it were pleasure. In short, there is some diversity on what gives pleasure and pain. Whether there is a lot of diversity or a little diversity influences how much of a problem it is for the theory. It might be we can find some exceptions but that in the main the assumption holds water. But if there are strong convincing alternatives then we might have a good reason for challenging the theory.
2) Does the moral theory encourage the kind of abilities or skills needed to do good (by its own definition)?
This is a more complex question but it really relates to the practicality of the theory. Is it something that could actually operate or is it just a theoretical system to judge moral actions afterwards? Some moral theories seem to require the person to have an extremely detailed ‘God’s eye view’ of the situation. This is true of some forms of utilitarianism but also situation ethics which requires you to have a really sound picture of everything that is going on in the dilemma and what the consequences will be of each option. Some seem to offer an interesting theory about ethics, which doesn’t actually encourage good action. So Plato’s theory of forms may be true but knowledge of the theory is not likely to help in actual moral decision making. On the other hand virtue theory is focused on developing character traits which will help a person be moral. A theory may not be practical but still could be true. Sometimes the rightness or wrongness of an action can only be established from a historical perspective which sees a whole picture unavailable to the people who actually had to decide what to do at the time. A particular theory may provide what we need to judge whether something was right or wrong, but does not actually encourage people to make the right decision – it doesn’t include the mechanisms within to help people make decisions. So this question can be asked of moral theories but we need to decide whether the answer is a blow against the moral theory, or if it just reveals what the theory is good for.
3) To what extent does the theory take account of human nature?
Of course we could have a big discussion about what human nature actually is (assuming it exists), but if we are faced with an ethical theory seems to go very much against what is reasonable for a human being to do then we might begin to question whether it is a good theory. One of the problems many people have with Kantian ethics is the fact that he sets human emotion or sentimentality aside. Yet many ethical thinkers and philosophical and religious systems today think that love is a key ingredient in moral decision making and realizing that we have some kind of emotional connection with another person, as a fellow human being for instance, matters. An example of this is revealed when an SS officer, clearing a ghetto and shooting Jewish civilians sees a small girl who is running with her teddy. She dropped the teddy and the SS officer, remembering his mothers teaching on helping children, bent over and picked up the teddy. He then couldn’t shoot her. In acting on his upbringing, and the sentimentality which surrounded that, he had affirmed that she was a person, and not some worthless creature. Emotion saved the girl. So encouraging people to push emotions to one side, in a Mr Spock Vulcan sort of way, may not actually be good for us. Some would argue that human beings cannot act dispassionately, that emotions are bound up with knowledge and experience so we cannot detach ourselves from them. Most ethical theories make some assumptions about human nature so exploring what this is can help in evaluating the theory.
4) Does the theory lend itself to certain kinds of moral dilemmas but not others?
#I sometimes feel that perhaps Kant would make a very fair judge, I would not put him in charge of a field-hospital in a war zone where he would have to make difficult decisions about limited supplies of medicines and other resources. Some moral theories seem to assume a world in which things are very much black and white and there will be an evaluation of the situation and there will be a good option and a bad option making the choice simple. But what about decisions where there are only two bad options? For instance an example I sometimes give (which is sadly based on a true event) is of the decision of a Damage Control Officer in a naval frigate which has a fire in one section that could spread to another section and destroy the ship. Ships are able to seal sections off and some vessels have powerful fire extinguishers which will put the fire out, but kill anyone in the area. Faced with this sort of decision, perhaps more common in war time, does the theory provide help in guiding the decision or does it object to both options. If it doesn’t help then we may question whether it is real-world proof. It’s a bit like the driver who is lost and asks for directions to his destination and the person says ‘well I wouldn’t start from here’. Here is where we are at when faced with a moral decision. Does the theory help or hinder.
So in evaluating moral theories, we need to ask theories questions, digging around inside them for answers. It might be that we end up with some questions about the theory but nothing seems to deliver a killer blow as none of the criticisms seem strong enough to really justify a rejection. We should be cautious about coming to a flippant conclusion and give disproportionate importance to the weakness we have identified. Most theories have critics and criticisms that can be made against them but they still can tell us important and interesting things about morality. But it may be we open up a big problem which must be fixed if the theory is to be used.
The Charter is ‘A call to bring the world together…’. It was launched in 2009 by a multi-faith, multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders called the Council of Conscience. They reviewed and sorted through the world’s contributions and crafted the final Charter. On the website these figures express their commitment to the venture from their own religious perspectives. For example Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University states:
“Everything partakes in the same drive, in the same inspiration: eating, breathing, taking care of one’s body, of one’s being and of one’s inner life are mystical, sacred acts, enabling one to reach an absolute by overcoming the self through Love-Compassion.”
Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, Rabbi of the Reform Jewish Community of The Hague, writes:
“Compassion is not hereditable. It can and therefore must be taught. The teaching of compassion, the exercise of the soul, will open the heart. And then nothing will be impossible.”
Sadhvi Chaitanya, Spiritual Director, Arsha Vijan Mandiram writes:
“[The goal of becoming a compassionate person] is achieved through acts of compassion. First those acts are deliberate because nobody wants to be compassionate. It is a religious discipline to practice, and after the practice, it becomes natural, it becomes part of one’s nature.”
The Charter of Compassion states that the compassion principle is found at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions. This principle calls us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. This golden rule is a moral requirement to work to end the suffering of others and replace egoism with altruism. This is a leap of the moral imagination. Egoism is an attitude to life centred on self-gratification. Altruism is an other-centred approach. We must shift from thinking in terms of the former, to the latter. The charter continues arguing that we must:
“…honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”
We must live a life where we refrain in public and private from inflicting pain through word and action, refrain from denigrating others, and refrain from the exploitation of others. These deny the common humanity of others. The Charter calls on everyone to put compassion back into the heart of religion and morality. It acknowledges that this has been lost in some cases. It urges a sympathetic teaching of religions and cultures:
“…to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies.”
The Charter continues to express a compassion centred view of the path to salvation and enlightenment and a world of peace:
“Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”
The emphasis of the charter is not on thinking, but doing. It is not simply a set of principles but a practical proposal. The organization seek to promote the idea throughout the world, encouraging groups and organizations to take it up.
Read the full text of the Charter and consider what implications it has for your own personal situation and your school or place of work. (charterforcompassion.org) If you had been involved in writing the Charter what would you have included? You could form groups to write your own Charter. Is there another principle that you would put at the centre, or is compassion right?
Science fiction frequently presents ethical dilemmas in ultimate terms. While we should be cautious to recognise the dilemmas are often simplistically rendered in drama they are nevertheless a stark way of focusing on a conflict in principles. Take two examples: one from the Watchmen movie and comic book and the other from the BBC’sTorchwood. Both deal with the political reality of sacrificing human lives for a greater good in utilitarian terms
Example 1: Watchmen
The Watchmen, a curious dystopian vision of a future of US history in which strange costumed Super Heroes emerged in the 1940s and 50s and helped America to win the Vietnam war. Nixon is still President and the Super Heros are now retired or working for the government. One, a brilliant scientist, has created the technology to destroy a number of the world’s capital cities. He does this, disguising it as coming from another hero (in the movie) as tensions have escalated towards nuclear war between the USSR and USA. Moments before the launch of a nuclear strike the destruction of so many major world capitals causes the USSR and USA to ally their forces against the common enemy and a new era of peacetime begins. The hero scientist with the brilliant mind worked out that the only way to prevent massive thermonuclear war was to tactically present a third common enemy to unite the world. He succeeds, at least for the present, but at the cost of tens of millions of lives. The other heroes are horrified at what the brilliant scientist has done.
Example 2: Torchwood
Torchwood presents a similar dilemma but this time the threat is from an over powering enemy which wants live children so they can feed off chemicals released in the children’s bodies. It is a horrific vision. The enemy has a virus which it could release to the world if the children are not handed over. There seems no way to challenge the aliens. The British Cabinet are left to work out how to choose children. They use school league tables to work out which children are likely to be least productive. But how to get the schools and families to agree? They tell a lie that there is an inoculation that these children need urgently and they get the help of the army by telling soldiers the truth and guaranteeing the safety of their own children if the soldiers help to round up the others. Faced with annihilation or the sacrifice of many children, they choose the sacrifice as the only responsible thing to do. In the end this disaster is averted by Captain Jack Harkness who uses his own grandson to destroy the aliens. In doing so the child must die. His team are horrified by what he has to do.
In both nightmarish visions a few, or the one, are sacrificed to avert the catastrophic alternative. In both dramas there are those who voice an alternative moral sentiment. It is better that humanity falls, than such a terrible price is paid for survival. Both programmes challenge what is meant by heroism. In both we are left wondering whether the real hero is the person who acted to save humanity by a brutal act. Perhaps this is an example of the different between good acts and right acts. There is nothing intrinsically good about the murder of innocents but what if that was the only way of reducing the overall death toll? Is it better to do a ‘right’ but bad thing, or better to allow a ‘wrong’ and terrible thing to occur?
Then there is the question of what happens to the people after their terrible right but bad acts. Do they become monsters? Captain Jack leaves Earth, never wanting to return. The Brilliant Hero Scientist stays. Is there a price that is paid by the civilizations themselves? What kind of world is it that allows the few to die in the interests of the many?
Of course it is comfortable to treat such moral decision making as a sci-fi drama. But military commanders of soldiers will face terrible moments where they must send men to certain or near certain death, to insure that the battle plan is ultimately won. Politicians have to make calculations about how to allocate a limited budget among an overwhelming need. For instance, there is an increasing pressure for some local authorities to merge homes for the elderly as the larger homes are cheaper to run and budgets are very tight. But to close a home can lead to the elderly residents suffering from the loss of their familiar surroundings and can bring on a death earlier than necessary. One solicitor has made a name for herself by fighting the closures because it is clearly in the interests of residents not to go through the trauma of a move. But if there is no money to pay for it, what then?
This is the conflict between a pragmatic utilitarian ethic and an altruistic and idealist one. How would you act? I for one am glad I do not have to make the decision. There is a saying that when faced with two unpalatable options, the choice should follow your imperative – that which is essential above all else. Perhaps this means sacrificing the few for the many. For some all ethics boils down to a pragmatic realism. Underneath is a view that things cannot be changed – there is no truly just society. The reality is that it is a jungle out there and the fittest and perhaps most vicious, or wealthy, survive.
But against this gloomy presentation of ethics we must pay attention to how human civilization has sought out to alleviate suffering – the anti-slavery movement, the women’s rights movement, the development of liberal democracies where there is more participation in power. The individual people who did extraordinary things to save the lives of other people, such as those who saved Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis.
We could argue that progress is being made towards a better world and that a belief that it is possible to make the world better is essential to keep that progress going.
The cyclone that struck Burma in May caused terrible devastation, killing many thousands, destroying roads, house, bridges and leaving many in immediate danger of sickness and death. The Disasters Emergency Committee (www.dec.org.uk/item/200), an umbrella organization of overseas aid agencies, has reported that, “On 2 May 2008 at 16.00 local time, Cyclone Nargis ripped across the coast of Myanmar (also known as Burma), bringing misery and devastation to tens of thousands of people.” The Committee make appeals only in cases of serious emergency on a vast scale. The cyclone victims in Burma are (at the time of writing) in desperate need of emergency aid. No single country can manage such a disaster. The international community has responded immediately. However the Burmese government is dragging its heals. The military dictatorship which controls the country does not want foreigners pouring in. They control a closed society and are not prepared to open up, even if doing so will save a significant portion of the civilian population.
So the ethical question for the international community is: At what stage should direct action be taken to try to save the civilian population? Aid agencies confirm that they must work with the agreement of the government and must try all in their power to persuade them to let the help in, but can there come a point when the international community must act?
Writing at this time, the pressure is building. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called what the Burmese government are doing as inhuman action. So when does inhuman action become a crime against humanity? Typically a crime against humanity is a large scale attack or persecution of a people, undermining human dignity. It is an action driven by a government policy.
UN Security Council Resolution 1674 which was adopted by the UN Security Councilon 28th April 2006, “reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (for links go to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_against_humanity). Currently the Burmese government are not actively persecuting, but by their active prevention of aid on a suitably large scale, they are certainly indirectly causing the death of civilians on a large scale. First the children, elderly and sick will die. Then the others.
According to the BBC (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7406023.stm) France’s UN Envoy, Jean-Maurice Ripert warned that the military’s refusal to allow aid to be delivered “could lead to a true crime against humanity”. Given that the aid is ready and on the borders, if the government was not present the aid would arrive. The only thing stopping the aid is the Burmese military dictatorship. So it could be argued they are directly causing a man made humanitarian crisis.
If the Burmese government do not change their mind then aid drops could take place but the effectiveness will be limited. Should a more direct response be considered? Using just war theory the process for such action can be considered. The action itself could involve ignoring the wishes of the government to stay out. Under normal circumstances a country’s borders are respected.
Firstly a just authority would need to approve such a direct decision. In this case it is the international community in the shape of the UN to decide to act against a member state, through the Security Council, and the role of the International Criminal Court to punish perpetrators of crimes against humanity. These are the competent authorities. It must be the international community’s decision.
The cause must be just. There must be a real and certain danger, and there is to the civilian population in the affected region. There must be a just intention. However much countries may not like the Burmese Dictatorship, it is the danger to civilians that must motivate action.
The action taken by the community must be proportionate. It should be focussed on the alleviation of suffering of the people in the affected area and can only be done if it could not lead to worse things taking place. There must not be any excessive violence, death and damage should be avoided. This is more difficult to judge, especially if the Burmese government activity tried to prevent aid drops or a military action to force aid in.
All possible alternatives must be exhausted first and this is perhaps why, presently, diplomatic efforts are being pursued. There must be a reasonable chance of success. This is difficult to measure, air drops are not that effective but might be better than nothing. A militarily backed intervention could be much more difficult and might lead to worse instability for the whole country.
There is an ethical case for direct military backed emergency aid. But agreement at a diplomatic level is much more likely to succeed quickly, if the agreement can be reached. If not then the ethical thinker is stuck in an unenviable place. Stand by and watch a human caused horror unfolding, or intervene and risk harm.
Recently there have been moves to develop an ethical code to help regulate science by The Council for Science and Technology (CST) is the UK government’s top-level advisory Body on Science and technology policy issues. The proposed code is based around a number of values:
Rigour, honesty and integrity
– act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up-to-date skills and assist their development in others?
– take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest
– be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others.
Respect for life, the law and the public good
– ensure that your work is lawful and justified
– minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment
Responsible communication: listening and informing
– seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others?
– do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.
Public concern about science is considerable and not unjustified. People worry about genetic engineering, euthanasia and abortion. To what extent are scientists held to broadly agreed values? Believers with specific ethical systems might feel that science sometimes appears like a runaway train or a slippery slope. There is always something new coming around the corner, some new Frankensteinian creation or development.
This new ethical code might help to reduce that alarm. The values it refers to seem to connect with the ethical concerns that people have with the environment, seem to acknowledge animal rights issues, and includes basic ideas of justice, honesty, clarity and openness. It draws attention to the possible repercussions to others of the work and their rights, and adopts the minimum harm approach.
But perhaps there should also be an ethical code for the public, or at least an agreed rational code. To be prepared to listen and to try to understand what science is offering and how dependent we are on good scientific development, to be cautious about reacting emotively before considering the facts and be willing to accept that privately held moral views have to be argued for in a democratic society. The fact that I hold something to be sacred does not mean everyone must agree with me. Others who don’t agree should show some respect for my views but if they have good reason to reject them they have a responsibility to the greater good their work is in search of, to do so.
There is something reassuring about a person in a white coat with a clipboard and probably glasses. Trust the expert. They know what they are talking about. We trust scientists and researchers believing them to be honest reasonable people. Three recent media stories raise questions about the trusting of those in positions of scientific responsibility and the importance of ethics in science.
Firstly there are the climate scientists who seem to suggest they were interested in keeping out of journals research that did not fit the bigger picture of climate change they believed in. The shock of this seems to have caused an increase in people who are skeptical that climate change is real (Seenews.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8500443.stm). The process of publishing research is complex but to get an article into a journal the article is anonymously judged, usually by two reviewers who are also specialists in the field. Research that supports previously supported views might be easier to get published than that which proposes contrary views. A new argument that overturns other arguments needs to be convincing enough to be taken seriously. We have to hope that professional reputations and egos do not cloud the judgement of academic reviewers and journal editors.
Mistakes can be made. The article which suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism got into an important medical journal but the research was later found to be flawed and ethically compromised. This led to many children suffering unnecessary conditions they would otherwise have been protected from as concerned mothers withdrew their children from vaccination programmes. The article has now been retracted as false. (See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8493753.stm andnews.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8483865.stm for information about how the research rules were broken.)
A third case is the recent report into the activity of two 18th century pioneers in medical research into the care of women in childbirth. William Hunter and William Smellie, it is now claimed in a research report, had pregnant women murdered so they could carry out their autopsies. They wanted to be the greatest authorities of the time and had a great rivalry between them and so needed dozens of women to conduct their research (www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/feb/07/british-obstetrics-founders-murders-claim).
These three cases illustrate different examples of ethical and unethical dimensions of science. I may make discoveries but only through immoral actions. I may not allow articles which undermine my career to be published, even if they are good pieces of research. I may seek to publish research that I know is compromised, in the pursuit of my career, and at the expense of public knowledge and in some cases health. Professional ethics are at the heart of these actions but so is a duty on the public to treat media accounts of research carefully. A dramatic story sells more papers than a non-dramatic one. There is a political dimension here too. An unpleasant reality that inconveniently requires us to change our lives is not a pill a politician wants to give the people. A politician must get elected; newspapers must sell stories that appeal to the interests of the readers. This is murky ethical territory and it is the duty of an ethically literate person to dig much deeper than casual reading.
Relativism could be defined as follows: when we decide that a course of action is moral, it is not objectively true but related to some background situation, a local cultural preference or a particular situation. With relativism, what counts as truth is what we regard as true or rational by our local standards. Relativism challenges the possibility of an absolute conception of truth and the possibility of reaching any absolute conception of truth. In other words it could be that certain things are true but that we can never actually reach that truth. The Sophist Protagoras reportedly said that man is the measure of all things. Now it seems reasonable that my particular view of a piece of music or whether a wind is hot or cold, depends on my outlook – what I am used to and what I like. The Greeks took this idea and moved it on into the moral domain.
There is a great deal of negativity towards relativism. People seem to be rather reluctant to accept the idea that right and wrong are not things which we can use to label certain actions or behaviours or attitudes. Adults in particular seem to want schools to teach pupils the difference between right and wrong. Our laws indicate a view of what should be permitted and what should be restricted. In other words, it is one thing to hold an individual preference or view but as soon as we are talking about groups of people, relativism starts to look quite suspect. In an age of human rights when we are used to seeing things on TV from far off places that seem wrong, we can feel very strongly about that. It seems to be wrong. We call on human rights as something that should be for all, or perhaps just an idea of a basic natural sense of justice and injustice.
The problem is that cultures are different and it is not always straightforward whether we have a good position to judge others. A society which has great freedom for men and women, and correspondingly few social obligations to control for instance the way in which relationships can be made and broken, might look down on a society which has limitations on those freedoms and quite a lot of social control, on the role of women and the prescription of heterosexuality as a norm. On the other hand the more controlling society might have stronger family cohesion and might look at the family and social breakdown found in the more liberal society as the source of problems. Each perspective is conditioned. Where is the position of objectivity, or neutrality? Perhaps the strength of relativism is that it can consider both perspectives and actually discern more than a position locked to one truth would be able. This a possible virtue of relativism.
Perhaps we need to be much more suspicious of what certain groups or authorities say truth is at all. Perhaps we need to take responsibility for finding truth for ourselves. Truth might be much more difficult to tie down and should be much more highly valued than some of the previous narratives or stories from religious, political or philosophical traditions. This kind of relativism means that we do judge others, and we do make decisions about moral conduct, but that we see ourselves as having a very important responsibility in discerning those things, rather than relying on ready made answers. However there is a tendency to slip from this to ‘Anything goes’ which seems much more frightening. There are no controls, no truth, no limits. It is not clear how relativism can avoid this slip accept that it suggests someone who has not taken serious responsibility for conduct and judgement. For this reason, relativism is unlikely to become popular for parents who worry about their children, for politicians who have responsibility for the protection of the people who elect them, and for religious people who have a sincere conviction that their religion offers the truth.