Aristotle and happiness – Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle believed that happiness was the supreme good, but that this was no platitude. By happiness he means grasping the function of man. This human good is “activity of soul in conformity with excellence”. Of course our experience of what makes us happy, what gives us pleasure, may be of things which are in conflict with other things – perhaps alcohol and drugs might be examples of such pleasures. These are in conflict with other things such as health because they are not natural pleasures. Natural pleasures and naturally pleasant. Excellent actions must be in themselves pleasant and they must be good and noble.

Aristotle goes on to argue that moral virtue comes as a result of habit. Morality does not rise up out of nature. Nature gives us the capacity to receive moral virtue. Someone who has well formed habits will delight in his or her ability to abstain from bodily pleasures. It is not enough to abstain and feel annoyed by the abstention – that is self-indulgent. The one who faces danger without pain is brave.

Excellence is a state concerned with choice, our choice, lying in the mean along a plane which has two vices, one at each end. At one end there is excess and at the other defect. We can have not enough, and we can have too much. We have the power to choose to practice at being better, at reaching the mean point in a number of virtues which Aristotle defines. By practice we improve. By being virtuous we become more virtuous.

Interestingly Aristotle notes that the point of mean, the perfect position, is relative to us. He is different from the absolutist Plato, who had a universal definition of good beyond the material world. Aristotle is a relativist of a sort. Perfect societies might not all look the same – there could be different ways different societies could live well. There are different expectations that can be placed on people in terms of how they may develop their virtues. The old, young and sick must have differentiated expectations. The possibility of this kind of plurality of excellent societies is one that we might reflect upon in an age where there seems again to be a conflict in cultures.

Thomas Aquinas

A brilliant theologian and philosopher, Aquinas was a monk and a scholar and his writings have contributed to thinking on philosophy and ethics, as well as theology. This profile will concern his principle contributions to ethics in natural law, conscience, virtue theory and proportionalism (as found in his Just War Theory).

One of Aquinas’ legacies is in his development of the natural moral law theory, through which he tried to construct an idea of what it was to be human. In this he was building on earlier ideas which dated back to Greek times which reflected an idea of a divine law over and above any human law which had to be respected. Aquinas’ understanding was that there was a concrete idea of what it was to be human and that this manifested itself in how people should live. He concluded that the governing principles of human law were to preserve your life (which had principle status), procreate, educate children, worship God and live in society. Moral actions (for Aquinas was a deontologist, believing that actions were intrinsically good or bad) were determined to be good depending on whether they were in accordance with one of these precepts. Critically, Aquinas  felt this Natural Law did not depend on knowledge of Holy Scripture but could be deduced through reason. This ethical thinking has largely informed Catholic Moral thought today, but it is not Aquinas’ only ethical contribution.

Aquinas’ thinking on conscience is also important. Aquinas argued that conscience is the power of reason. It is a device or faculty for distinguishing right from wrong rather than an inner knowledge of the kind suggested by other early Christian thinkers. He thought people tended towards goodness and away from evil (he called this the ‘synderesis rule’). Aquinas identified conscience as the power of reason for working out what was good and what was evil. At times people do bad things because they make an error in the process of discriminating good from ill. They pursue something which is apparently good but in fact is not truly good – their conscience has made a mistake. Consequently, a wrong done due to a faulty conscience is not morally blameworthy. He illustrates this with the curious example; if a man sleeps with another man’s wife thinking she was his wife, then he is not morally blameworthy because he was not free to do good.

Conscience is ‘reason making right decisions’ and not a voice giving us commands as suggested by the later Bishop Butler. Conscience deliberates between good and bad. Aquinas notes two dimensions of moral decision making, “Man’s reasoning is a kind of movement which begins with the understanding of certain things that are naturally known as immutable principles without investigation. It ends in the intellectual activity by which we make judgments on the basis of those principles…” (Summa Theologica, 1-1, Qu.79) synderesis is right reason, the awareness of the moral principle to do good and avoid evil. Conscientia distinguishes between right and wrong and also makes moral decisions.

Aquinas’ thinking on conscience provides a interesting background in which to place his natural moral law theory for it sheds more light on the process of moral decision making and the responsibility and the authority people have for their moral actions, properly deliberated upon, even if ultimately wrong. This sensitivity is expressed even more acutely in his thinking on the just war, in which he departed from absolute notions and cultivated a more proportionate understanding of the application of moral rules to a situation. In his thinking about war he drew on some of St Augustine’s statements and developed them further. He identified three necessary conditions for a just war: It had to be approved by an authorized authority which acts for the common good, as opposed to an illegitimate power acting for partial interests; for a just cause, rather than simple personal or national gain, “that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault”; and rightful intention uncorrupted by hidden motives. It must be for the furthering of some good or an avoidance of some evil.

Aquinas shows an acute sensitivity to politics which demonstrates, still in the current age, an ability to give explanations for war at the time which cloud true motivations. His moral thinking about war, like that of conscience, is concerned with inner motivations as well as outward actions. What is interesting is that it brings into the moral framework conditionality. If the criteria for justice are fulfilled the war is justified. The presence of these conditions or qualifications in both his thinking on war and conscience show the sensitivity that Aquinas knew was involved in moral decision making, which is sometimes lost when appeals are made to his teaching on natural law alone. Aquinas was also aware that moral behaviour was linked to character and he recalled in his writings the work of Aristotle on the virtues and vices. So in representing Aquinas’ ethical thinking it is important to take account of all his ethical work, rather than simply one component of it.

Profile: John Stuart Mill

Mill’s contribution to ethical thinking is as extraordinarily significant as his contributions across the board. As a child he read ancient Greek and Latin texts and as an adult made significant contributions to thinking about liberty, women’s rights and utilitarianism.

Mill’s writing and thinking On Liberty is a founding text for modern British and American politics on the relationship between the individual and society and the limitations that society has to exercise over individuals. The text On Liberty is an outspoken defense of free speech. Mill’s thinking was decidedly weighted towards the individual. An individual thinker and individuality is an asset to society, “Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.” Mill said, “In this age, the man who dares to think for himself and to act independently does a service to his race” and, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” He was suspicious of the power of the state unduly restricting a person’s liberty. He wrote “The worth of the state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it” and he put it another way, “The individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.”

The argument that people should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they do not harm another stresses the freedom of the individual to be as free as they can without limiting the freedom of another. He wrote, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.” and, “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.”

This idea finds its way into all sorts of modern politics and ethical thinking. For instance, in a recent debate about Muslim women wearing the veil, politicians expressed the concern that people should be free to do what they want, allowing that the rights of others be preserved. Human rights legislation embraces this idea and it can be seen in discussions about the importance of having a small state, rather than a ‘nanny state’.

The absolute value of the individual that mill expressed is apparent in his radical thinking about women. He argues that, “the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.” Inequality has no place in the modern world. He argued for the right to vote for women, both in his writings and also in Parliament in his role as an MP and all this in the nineteenth century.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was one of England’s most radical political thinkers and well known for his comment that life was solitary, poor, nasty, short and brutish. The most important point that Hobbes makes is that it is always rational to give up all your rights to a sovereign. This is a completely rational decision because the alternative to this is war. People are all very selfish and only pursue the things which are in their own interest. This brings them into conflict with others. We must assume that everyone else has murderous intentions. We are driven by the desire for pleasure and the attempt to avoid pain much as Bentham was later to repeat. The solution is to vest authority in an absolute sovereign. People have freedom in the state of nature. We have a liberty to act at will but our will is not the power to choose between passions but it is the passion. Acting at will is acting on the last passion to bear upon us. This state of nature is a state of freedom but that actually means lawlessness because people simply pursue their desires and interests. To give up all freedoms means all people are brought into unity and in unity you can get something back. The sovereign can allow you to have enough freedom to act so as to ensure the freedoms of others are protected. Hobbes’ absolutist ideas were such that he felt democracies are very bad at making decisions. They get things wrong and they keep changing their minds. He felt the sovereign should have absolute power and that the subject had no rights. Hobbes presents us with an interesting challenge today. Today we have the strong notion of individual rights as protections from the state and we would see the giving up of those rights as irrational. Hobbes lived at a time of great strife in England. The Civil War ravaged communities. Tearing apart families, destroying the security that order provided and leaving people exposed to the elements and the viciousness of each other. Rich secure countries find it hard to think about giving up freedoms as a bad thing but poor countries may rarely experience those freedoms. Democracy without security comes at an expensive cost and is unstable, as illustrated by Iraq. Even rich countries today are thinking seriously about restricting rights and individual freedoms for the protection of all. Under new laws, protesters within a kilometer of the Houses of Parliament or close to number 10 can be moved on for security reasons, even though they have theoretical democratic rights to protest. A woman was arrested and convicted of an offence for reading a list of the names of killed British troops within earshot of number 10. The extent to which we might agree with the decision to arrest the protester might be linked to the extent to which we agree with Hobbes about the dangers of individuals acting freely and the need for a powerful government to keep us all safe.

Zygmund Bauman: ethics for postmodernity

Zygmund Bauman may not be a name many students or teachers of AS/A2 level ethics are familiar with. He is, after all, an eminent sociologist, rather than a traditional philosopher. More than that, his concern is with the world of postmodernity, the world which he believes we now inhabit which is characterised by ambiguity and uncertainty. It is not a world which easily falls into a clear and concrete philosophical or theological order. It is through this concern that he has written a heavy critique of traditional ethics of most kinds and traditional sources of moral authority. He is a lightning rod for ethics which is why it is important that his ideas are explored. The kind of criticism which he makes of ethics, which is sociological, philosophical and political, is important in the evaluation of the classic ethical theories, from Aquinas to Bentham, Kant to Ayer, and MacIntyre to boot. His arguments offer us a toolkit for investigating these classical ethical ways of thinking.

In his classic work, Post Modern Ethics and partner volume, Life in Fragments, he developed his attack. On page 10 of Post Modern Ethics he lays into the idea of granting authority to the moral wise, “If philosophers, educators, and preachers make ethics their concern, this is precisely because none of them would entrust judgement of right and wrong to the people themselves or would recognize, without further investigation, the authority of their beliefs on the matter”. He is profoundly suspicious of the very practice of high ethics as he sees it as a tool for undermining the status and responsibility of the people.

“Only ethics can say what really ought to be done so that the good be served. Ideally, ethics is a code of law that prescribes correct behaviour ‘universally’ “that is, for all people at all times; one that sets apart good from evil once for all and everybody. This is precisely why the spelling out of ethical prescriptions needs to be a job of special people like philosophers, educators and preachers.”

These special people have a position of authority over ordinary people. We are left to carry on applying rules of thumb that we cling to, given us by the moral authority which has legal and judicial weight. In other words the kind of moral behaviour which ethical experts tend to offer is one governed by law. Those experts also govern how good the people are at following these moral laws. Their authority comes from having special access to knowledge not available to ordinary people. They gain it by communing with the spirits of the ancestors, studying the holy scriptures, or unraveling the dictates of Reason.

Bauman feels this approach embraces a derogatory view of the ‘ethical competence’ of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. We are impotent in the face of these experts who we depend upon and must go to for guidance. What is more the kinds of ethics the “experts” come up with are distanced form the hurly burly of real life. It is developed in the rarefied environment of university philosophy or theology departments. We live in the muddy, ambiguous world of real life where applying these sorts of rules seems much more difficult than in the carefully worked out calculations the experts made. What is more, simply following laws laid down doesn’t help us learn to take responsibility for making moral decisions ourselves. Quite the reverse is true. We are inducted into becoming dependent on the wise, but when we are alone in the world, having to act, we do not have our experts at hand to help.

One last aspect of his criticism is the role of community in expressing and organising morality. Moral rules are seen as the ways in which society organises and orders itself. We see religions encouraging their believers to live by their moral systems, politicians asking for people to uphold the common good, live by the agreed values of society. However, Bauman reminds us that being good sometimes means opposing the moral standards of the community, not least in Nazi Germany. So for society to be morally fit, it needs to encourage a willingness to stand against the common accepted view.

Bauman’s contribution is to challenge the nature of ethics itself and the power relationships which seem to be implied in the kinds of systems which ethics has classically looked to. In any ethical theory, we can ask, does the theory encourage moral responsibility, does the theory encourage the idea that must take moral responsibility for our actions and judgements, or does it encourage us to defer to others, or do what we are told.

Profile: Peter Singer

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher who is famous in philosophical circles for his preference utilitarian theory, and more generally for some of the radical implications of this theory, such as his views on animal liberation and abortion.

Who is deserving of moral consideration?

His book, Animal Liberation (1975) began by moving from women’s rights to animal rights. He comments on a criticism made of Mary Wollenscraft’s case for women’s rights, that were one to follow this argument one would give rights to brutes. Singer widens the circle of moral consideration from women to animals. Essentially he developed an argument that they should have equal consideration. Failure to do so was an example of speciesism, discrimination on the basis of species. He also stressed that the reason for giving animals equal consideration was that they could feel pain, not that they had a level of intelligence, though he notes some of the great apes have shown considerable intelligence through specially developed communication systems.

“All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals.” (Singer, 1975)

We should not show mentally ‘retarded’ human beings less consideration than others. So we cannot give moral significance only to those creatures who have high intelligence or mental capability. In fact we tend to give even more consideration to humans that have not yet developed high levels of intelligence or ability such as newborn babies. However there is still a degree of calculation going on and some have pointed out that under Singer’s equal consideration system an animal suffering great pain is more deserving of action than a human suffering a little pain. Many animals lives together may in fact be worth a human life. In short there is no intrinsic or inviolable aspect of Singer’s theory. He does not give human beings a unique moral status and there might always be a greater good that justifies neglecting a human.

“Animal Liberation will require greater altruismon the part of human beings than any other liberation movement. The animals themselves are incapable of demanding their own liberation, or of protesting against their condition with votes, demonstrations, or bombs. Human beings have the power to continue to oppress other species forever, or until we make this planet unsuitable for living beings.” (Singer, 1975)

How do we apply equal consideration?

Equal consideration of interests does not mean equal treatment of all those with interests. Different interests warrant different treatment. Everyone has an interest in avoiding pain while few have an interest in developing their abilities. A starving person and a hungry person both have a interest in food but the starving person’s interest demands more urgent treatment.

Which interests are more important?

Singer suggests a number:
Avoiding pain
Developing one’s abilities
Basic needs for food and shelter
Enjoying personal relationships
Being free to pursue projects

Above all else, a capacity for suffering or the enjoyment of happiness is the thing that qualifies a being for equal consideration. Trivial interests and pleasures do not have any priority.

Singer does think that ethics have a degree of universality. Ethical conduct is justifiable if it addresses a larger audience. One must love thy neighbour as thyself, by giving others equal interest to oneself.

Singer and Abortion

For Singer, one’s right to life is intrinsically bound with one’s ability to hold preferences, which means it is linked to the extent to which a being can feel pain or pleasure. Singer thinks that the human being develops gradually, that it becomes more human and alive at some point after conception making it almost impossible to identify the precise moment. However, he is more controversial than some opponents of abortion because he rejects the claim that it is wrong to take innocent life:

“[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.”

It is the weight of the preference of the mother against the preference of the fetus that should be weighed. As a capacity to experience suffering increases with growth the grown and born mother will have a much greater capacity than the fetus, whose preferences are only potential at this stage. Abortion is morally permissible, therefore. More radically, Singer applies this to newborns who he determines lack essential characteristics of personhood including rationality, autonomy and self–consciousness. Killing a newborn, he thinks, is not the same as killing a born being.

Singer’s most recent book, The Life You Can Save, makes the argument that it is a clear-cut moral imperative for citizens of developed countries to give more to charitable causes that help the poor. While Singer acknowledges the problems inherent in aid and charity of ensuring that money goes where it is most needed and used effectively, his original premise (that people should give more) is not reconciled with these problems in mind

Singer and Poverty

Singer applies his theory brutally to the rich. If you can save the life of a poor person on the other side of the world by not going to restaurants or buying fancy clothes then you should. If you don’t do this you are a bad person. The inequalities between rich and poor in the world are obscene. You should give at the very least, 5% of you income to charity. The use of our money in this way would change lives radically. It is possible to eradicate poverty and we have to do it.

Singer is consistently unwaveringly radical in the application of his ethics to moral issues that face people.

Short Bibliography

Animal Liberation, Random House, New York, 1975
Practical Ethics, CUP, Cambridge, 1979
The Life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty, Random House, New York, 2009

The best website on Singer is:
It includes lectures and articles.

Common Ground: Singer and Christian ethics

A meeting between Christian ethicists and Peter Singer has resulted in some common ground, as reported by Mark Vernon in the Tablet Newspaper (28th May 2011;

Peter Singer, the controversial advocate of Preference Utilitarianism, is not a figure one would think to have much common ground with Christians when it comes to matters of ethics. He has specifically rejected and opposed many aspects of Christian thinking on ethics and has ideas about abortion, infanticide and euthanasia that many Christians would find abhorrent.

Singer thinks “Once we admit that Darwin was right when he argued that human ethics evolved from the social instincts that we inherited from our non-human ancestors, we can put aside the hypothesis of a divine origin for ethics.”

He views Christianity as a system of making people do things because of a fear of punishment and out of a desire for salvation. He sees within the New Testament examples of evil done to animals such as when Jesus cast out demons and sent them into a herd of pigs.

Though a utilitarian, Singer’s precise form of utilitarianism is different from traditional forms such as those of Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill. Traditional forms say that the choice that brings the greatest pleasure to the greatest number is the good one. Singer’s version, which is called Preference Utilitarianism, is a variation of this. It is not focussed on pleasure, something that is often quite difficult to define, but people’s preferences. Preference utilitarianism seeks to find out how such preferences should be weighed against those of other people. One person’s preferences should not count for more than another’s. This requires some empathy. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of others. We have to take account of their interests, their preferences. This act of empathy is required also in Christian ethics, in the commandment to love one’s neighbour and do unto them what you would wish they do unto you. Singer gives away a third of his income to charity and encourages others to do the same, something that Christians would approve of.

Singer is also well known for his views on animal ethics and his concern, in particular, for the industrial slaughter of huge numbers of sentient animals for food and other products. Singer has argued that we must live more simply and consume less. These themes are also shared by many Christian ethicists who argue that humans should be just stewards of creation and should avoid over consumption.

So Singer advocates compassionate empathy in his ethical system and self-sacrifice and charity; virtues and principles that Christians would support. However there are differences. Singer’s view about animals extends further to give them moral significance especially when they show signs of personhood. He believes that humans are not the only persons. Christian ethicists tend to give moral importance to human beings over other living things because humans are made in the image and likeness of God and also because God became man. These two doctrines elevate human standing to a level above the other creatures. Human beings are identified as uniquely special in the moral economy.

The divide increases when it comes to questions of euthanasia, abortion and infanticide. Singer holds controversial views on these because he does not believe humans always have personhood. It arrives in later stages of development than conception and so the preferences of others, such as the mother, override those of the unborn or even the newly-born.  Christian ethics have revealed absolutes such as those about the sanctity of life and the prohibition of certain specific actions such as murder. Here, Preference utilitarianism is different. It has no revealed absolutes and this leads to the essential conflicts between Singer and Christian ethics, over those things which are strongly prohibited by sacred texts and beliefs.

You can watch recordings from the conference here:

It is important to be able to identify features of ethical theories and systems which are common, even when the theories are characterized as opposing. This shows a deeper understanding of the processes involved in ethical systems and precisely where the differences and similarities are.

Philippa Foot, Virtue & Trolley Bus Thought Experiment

Philippa Foot was responsible for starting a new ethical movement: virtue which influenced Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre. She was reacting against A J Ayer and R M Hare (emotivism and prescriptivism respectively). Ayer and Hare both thought that morality was really about prescribing ways of acting that were approved in some way. For example for Ayer the moral prescriptions merely expressed feelings for, or against, a moral behaviour and therefore was subjective. She also opposed deontology, ethics focused on actions, and utilitarianism, ethics focused on calculating the best end. She was also critical of determinist thinking, but the focus here is on her virtue theory.

Foot thought no one would follow moral prescriptions unless it was thought they were in some way related to human well-being or human harm. She opposed subjectivist accounts of moral philosophy. She proposed a no-nonsense approach thinking that moral philosophy had lost touch with real life. She worked with Elisabeth Anscombe. Together they believed that morals were not a matter of etiquette or personal opinion.  Morality is about how to live virtuously, which for Foot meant in a well rounded and human way. Wisdom and temperance were important human virtues but often we follow those people who have neither. Ethics should not be focused on particular actions or particular rules but on the whole person and therefore being moral was not about instances but a lifelong process. Foot also took a modest approach to her ethics. She did not think an ethical theory could fully capture the whole moral picture and nor could deeply obscure penetrating theorization.

Philippa Foot is also well known for her trolley bus thought experiment, an example she used to express moral permissibility.

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing? (Philippa Foot, The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect in VIRTUES and Vices (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978).)

In the example a breakless trolley-bus, the driver can swap some points over and change the course of the out of control vehicle. If he leaves it on the present course five people will be hit. By swapping the points only one person will be hit. This thought experiment was later developed with the introduction of a ‘fat person’. In the new version you switch the points onto a siding which runs back onto the main track and would hit the five people, however, a fat person is on the other line and because they are fat they will stop the train.

Mary Warnock and the Right to Abortion

Mary Warnock has long defended a woman’s right to abortion. As a leading moral philosopher she has consistently engaged in debates about moral issues. While much moral philosophy became focused on the linguistics of morality, the meta-ethical questions of the meaning of moralterms, early in her career she tended towards a different approach. In her book Ethics Since 1900 (1960, Oxford University Press, Oxford) she made this clear. She wrote in her conclusion of the survey of the meta-ethics of the 20th century:

“One of the consequences of treating ethics as the analysis of ethical language is… that it leads to the increasing triviality of the subject. This is not a general criticism of linguistic analysis but only of this method applied to ethics. In ethics, alone among the branches of philosophical study, the subject matter is not so much the categories we use to describe or to learn about the world, as our own impact upon the world, our relation to other people and our attitude to our situation and our life.” (pp.202-203)

Her engagement in ethics is apparent from her recent contribution to the current abortion debate. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is passing through Parliament and there is an effort to modify the bill in a way that will restrict abortion by lowering the legal limit to abortion from 24 weeks to 22 weeks, on the basis that babies over 22 weeks may survive birth. Warnock is opposed to any change in the law. She argues, in an article in the Observer newspaper (Sunday May 18th) that this should not happen for a number of reasons. It is likely that babies born will be brain damaged. It is also likely that women who want an abortion at that stage will simply do what they did before abortion was legal, and find other, probably unsafe backstreet solutions. She also argues that a law cannot be based on what is largely a religious belief.

If the argument is about vulnerable members of society then perhaps some justification can be found. If we think that abortion at 22 weeks is infanticide then, as a civilised society, we must prohibit it. There is something natural about trying to save the most vulnerable and surely 22 week old babies fall into this category. However, Warnock says we must consider the women:

“Many of them will be young and a significant number still of school age. Many will have refused to acknowledge that they were pregnant for as long as it was possible to deny it to themselves. Some may not have known they were pregnant. A combination of ignorance and fear, shame and hopelessness may have prevented their seeking either an abortion or support from their parents as the weeks went by. Some of them will, in any case, have left home and be living on the streets. Few will have any contact with the father of their baby; some may not even know who he is. … Whatever their precise circumstances, these mothers are in a desperate position. Most women deplore the need for even an early abortion, whether they regret it later or not. Few take the decision lightly. But this particular group of mothers is, most of all, to be pitied. They are the vulnerable ones.” (To read the full article go to:, ‘Women, not the unborn, deserve our protection’, The Observer, Sunday, May 18 2008.)

Warnock argues that the quality of life of the living is the priority. Warnock’s argument comes from within a powerful argument about the place of women in society. It is part of the wider tradition that argues that without reproductive rights, women cannot have basic rights. It is in part an extension of the observation that women  still do not have equality, that many institutions (including the law and religion) are patriarchal.

However, it would be a mistake to try and generalise about Warnock. She is not a situationist, or a strong advocate of rights based ethics. In her book, Making babies: Is there a right to have children, (2002, Oxford University Press, Oxford) she writes:

“We must beware of the danger of confusing what is passionately and deeply wanted with what is right. It is good if possible, and if no harm to others ensues, to try to get people what they very much want. But if they fail to get what they want they may be disappointed, but they have not, so far, been wronged.” (p.113)

She goes on to voice another concern that obsessions about rights might mean that we move our attention, from the thing that has wronged us, to the idea that have not got what we want. This would be deplorable, she writes.

Joseph Fletcher 1905 – 1991

The inventor of the ethical  theory, situation ethics, or situationism or situational ethics in the 1960s, his classic work was the book of the theory, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1966, Philadelphia: Westminster Press). His theory was a radical alternative Christian ethic to the more absolutist ethical theories of conservative Christians.

Traditional Christian ethics expresses a firm morality, based on fixed principles and also fixed ideas of right and wrong. These tend to be drawn, either from the biblical norms found in the Commandments and other teachings, or based on them, or (in the case of Catholic ethical thinking) in a Natural law ethic. In both traditions, the emphasis is on a deontological ethic, one focussed on judging acts as intrinsically right or wrong depending on whether they go against the norms in the bible or human nature.

Fletcher began his work with an  ethical analysis which concluded that legalistic ethics, ethics based on fixed laws, was not in the character of Jesus. Jesus seemed to have ethics which were prepared to go beyond laws. In many cases he broke laws and flew in the face of conventions associating with undesirables. He was very unpopular with the Pharisees because of this. Fletcher argued that Jesus seemed to be motivated by the situation. It wasn’t that he was lawless, but his guiding moral principle, unconditional or agape love, worked its way out taking account of the moral situation. It was not bound by what the law said, but what love dictated to achieve the most loving outcome. In this he drew on Paul Tillich who wrote “Love is the ultimate law”.

In contrast with traditional Christian deontological ethics, situationism is teleological. It looks to the end, the most loving end rather than being locked into laws about acts. Fletcher’s thinking was accused of being individualistic and relativistic. In a sense it is both, as it is the individual who decides what do to, and what they do is relative to the situation, motivated by a desire to achieve the most loving outcome. But Fletcher argued it was not relativism because  love is not relative. Love is absolute, the absolute that has the power to go into situations and change the moral possibilities.

Fletcher took radical approaches to many medical ethical issues such as euthanasia opting for a more considerate moral approach which took account of individuals in difficult dilemmas. He gave moral authority to the individual, just as Kant did. It is the human person that decides on morality. However, while Kant argued that any moral rules had to work in all moral situations, had to be universalisable, Fletcher instead said that the only moral principle that mattered was love. One had to pursue what was required to bring it about in the particular situation. So if it is more loving to help a terminally ill patient in intolerable pain to die than anything else then that is what you should do. You should not stick to a moral law when in front of you someone suffers for the sake of that law. If the concentration camp prisoner is able to prostitute herself to the guards to save herself and her child, and so avoid death, then perhaps that is the most loving thing to do.

Fletcher’s ethics were attacked by conventional Christian thinkers and ethical traditions as being individualistic and relativistic. It certainly gives great power to the person and they take responsibility for the moral decisions they make. There is no binding rule to stop actions which some will see as immoral.

‘The Lucifer Effect’: Professor Philip Zimbardo

What happens when you put good people in a bad place?

Does the inherent goodness of people win out or the badness of the place?

These questions are explored in a new book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007), by Professor Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo summarizes recent research on the essential factors that lead good people to engage in evil actions. What he calls a perfect storm of factors. He calls this transformation of human character the ‘Lucifer Effect’, named after God’s favorite angel, Lucifer, who fell from grace.

Zimbardo conducted the infamous study, the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Stanford University turned the basement of the psychology department into a prison. 75 students from all over America were chosen and put through psychological tests. Two dozen of the most normal healthy men were chosen. These people were ordinary good people. They were told they would be participating in a study of prison life. Some were give the role of guards. Others were told to wait in their dormitories and then the city police were used to do very realistic arrests. The prison guards were then left to run the prison. At the end of the first day everything was fine, but by the second day dehumanization had begun. Half way through the experiment homophobia reared its head. By the fifth day, the guards were ordering the prisoners to simulate sodomy and the experiment was abandoned.

The study is not philosophical or religious but psychological. Zimbardo offers a psychological reason for why ordinary people sometimes turn evil and commit acts of unspeakable evil. He is now a key witness for one of the guards at Abu Ghraib accused of atrocities done against the prisoners in Iraq. He argues that when this sort of thing comes up the system tends to blame bad apples. In reality ordinary people put into a bad system will do atrocious things quite predictably. This reflects the power of the situation to dominate individuals. Zimbardo is not excusing good people for doing bad things, moral responsibility remains with the individual. He is much more interested in trying to understand how to change things. If you want to change things you need to know how to avoid situations which create evil circumstances.

In his book Zimbardo also explores the occasional heroic characters. There is always a minority who resist, but heroes go further by challenging the system. Heroes are ordinary people who do extraordinary deeds. You can be perpetrator of evil, you can do nothing, or you can act but on behalf of others rather than yourself. He goes on to ask the question, how do we instil a heroic imagination in everyone to reduce the likelihood of future situations where basically good people end up doing horrific things?

Zimbardo has produced a ‘Program to Build Resistance and Resilience’ (The Lucifer Effect, Chapter 16) against some of the social and psychological pressures that foster evil. He writes, “The key to resistance lies in development of the three S’s – Self-Awareness, Situational Sensitivity, and Street Smarts#. Here are five of them:

1) “I made a mistake!” Being able to admit an error and accept it is part of being human and he suggests six magic words: “I’m sorry”; “I apologize”; “Forgive me”. Beyond that it is crucial to learn from your mistakes.
2) “I am responsible.” If I am allowed to avoid my own responsibility then I do not need to worry so much when things start going badly wrong. I am not a back seat driver.
3) “I am Me, the best I can be.” Anonymity is dangerous. If I put myself into a category – part of a collective or group, rather than an individual, then I begin to hide my individuality behind a corporate facade. Perhaps I feel unable to let the side down, or step out of line. This ‘deindividuates’ me. It is essential to restate the human connection and individual dignity of all people.
4) “I respect Just Authority, but Rebel against Unjust Authority.” It is important to critically differentiate between the two. Authority on its own is not enough. It must be just and justified. No mindless obedience. This is challenging especially in organisations such as the military or church, where obedience is a virtue.
5) “I want group acceptance, but value my independence.” Remember that the pressure to be a ‘team player’ can lead to an abandonment of personal morality. Sometimes the norm must be rejected.

Zimbardo provides a psychological investigation for the concern thinker Hannah Arendt raised a generation ago, and his observations about the distancing and dehumanization that allows human beings to do horrible things to each other reflects Jonathan Glover’s work Humanity: The Moral History of the Twentieth Century.  Philosophers and moral historians have come to these sorts of conclusions from their own disciplinary standpoints and psychologists do as well. Zimbardo’s work is a reminder of the role of psychology in analyzing moral  situations. His observations are a challenge to the ability of moral philosophy to provide a complete analysis of ethics. Moral decisions may not come down to Platonic ideas of the good, or Kantian beliefs about the dignity of the individual person, but rather an analysis of human behaviours and the impact institutions and organisations have on that behaviour. The late Pope John Paul II used to talk about something called structural sin an idea which seems at odds with traditions of personal individual moral responsibility. Zimbrado’s analysis seems to provide good evidence for the existence of structural sin, and perhaps does indeed show the face of Satan himself in twenty first century understanding.

You can watch, hear and read more about the book at the following website –

Beyond Freedom and Dignity: B F Skinner

B F Skinner was a professor of psychology at Harvard. Time magazine called him “the most influential of living American psychologists…” (September 20, 1971). He conducted pioneering work on experimental psychology and argued for behaviorism, a view that free will is an illusion. His provocative book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, published in 1971, put forward his controversial case for behaviorism. It was a controversial attack on libertarian thinkers, advocates of autonomy and the idea of autonomous man. He argued that ideas such as individual autonomy, free will, volition, and consciousness act as barriers for advances in technology for controlling human behaviour. This seems a shocking idea. We have come to understand free will as absolutely central to our notion of dignity. When we are controlled and restricted, we lose an essential quality of our humanity. Skinner was looking onto a world threatened by, “Overpopulation, the depletion of resources, the pollution of the environment, and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust – these are the not-so-remote consequences of present courses of action.” (p. 138.) He was trying to conceive of a way to change the behaviours that led to such threats.

Autonomous man is a problem. The traditional view of human beings is that they are free and so they can be held responsible for their actions. Skinner argued that scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behaviour and environment. The evidence for human predictability is becoming more and more convincing. We can predict how many people will go to the seashore when the temperature reaches a certain point, how many will commit suicide and so on. All human behaviour is the product of “operant conditioning”. The functions associated with the idea of “Autonomous Man” are in fact performed by a “reinforcer”. “When a bit of behaviour is followed by a certain kind of consequence, it is more likely to occur again, and a consequence having this effect is called a reinforcer. Food, for example, is a reinforcer to a hungry organism; anything the organism does that is followed by the receipt of food is more, likely to be done again whenever the organism is hungry… . Negative reinforcers are called aversive in the sense that they are the things organisms ‘turn away from.'” (p. 27.) Reinforcers are not the same as actions determined by pain or pleasure. There are positive and negative “reinforcers” in that the latter provokes “counterattack” or rebellion, while the former does not. Both are means of controlling man’s behavior. And he gives the example of labour. “Productive labor, for example, was once the result of punishment: the slave worked to avoid the consequences of not working. Wages exemplify a different principle: a person is paid when he behaves in a given way so that he will continue to behave in that way.” (p. 32.) All human relationships are tools of control.

This shifts responsibility from the individual to those who control the environment which induces such behaviour. After all, if my actions are principally the result of things external to myself, I can hardly be blamed for them. It also raises the question of who is or should be in control of the environment that causes the behaviour and what sort of environment they should construct. Skinner says that we cannot be praised for our virtues nor punished for our failings. The behaviour of a creative genius is determined by “contingencies of reinforcement”. Dignity, which Skinner calls the admiration of others, can be dispensed with as there is no cause to admire people for their behaviour. It is simply vanity.
Morality is exclusively social. Moral principles are inculcated through socially designed contingencies of reinforcement “under which a person is induced to behave for the good of others”. (p. 112.) This is an undiscussed absolute as we can question why people should behave for the  good of others. He argues for a simple dualism between man’s two conditioners: social environment and genetic endowment. “The controlling self (the  conscience or superego) is of social origin, but the controlled self is more likely to be the product of genetic susceptibilities to reinforcement (the id, or the Old Adam). The controlling self generally represents the interests of others, the controlled self the interests of the individual.” (p. 199.)

Skinner looks over the “the literature of freedom”, the canon of important writings on freedom throughout the ages, such as John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty”. These writings typically come from situations where people are oppressed and while they are important pieces of literature. They all contribute to the redundant idea of moral autonomy, or dignity. Skinner argues that we need to get beyond these ideas as they hinder the prospect of building a better, happier and more organized society by using science to modify human behaviour.

For Skinner, the “Autonomous Man” refers to aspects of consciousness which distinguish it from the instant sensory level of an animal’s consciousness. Specifically this includes reason, mind, values, concepts, thought, judgment, volition, purpose, memory, independence, self-esteem. These ideas are prescientific superstition. In truth, we are completely controllable by control of the environment. “Behavioral technologists” could and should control men inside out effectively creating a new and better species, with a new and better culture. As things are at the moment control is not found where you might expect. “The relation between the controller and the controlled is reciprocal … The classroom practices of the teacher are shaped and maintained by the effects on his students. In a very real sense, then, the slave controls the slave driver, the child the parent, the patient the therapist, the citizen the government, the communicant the priest, the employee the employer, and the student the teacher.” (p. 169.)

Skinner is completely deterministic. Human beings are not acting as a result of complex aspects of thought, purpose, values, etc.. Any kind of ethics which does not account for this is useless. Ayn Rand, an advocate of human dignity and autonomy, was highly critical of the book. Skinner does not provide the scientific evidence for his claims in the book itself, and asks the readers to trust in his interpretation of the science. His idea of culture is simplistic – a collection of behaviours, rather than something to do with an idea or people.

Rand argues that the book’s purpose is to clear the way for a dictatorship by eliminating its enemies and to see how much he can get away with. It’s motive power is hatred of man’s mind and virtue (with everything they entail: reason, achievement, independence, enjoyment, moral pride, self-esteem). She responds with a quote from Les Miserables, describing the development of an independent young man. Victor Hugo wrote: “… and he blesses God for having given him these two riches which many of the rich are lacking: work, which gives him freedom, and thought, which gives him dignity.”

However, beyond the kind of criticism made by Ayn Rand is a frightening shadow. If the science underpinning Skinner’s argument is correct, a big ‘if’, though one which gains support from the enormous praise he received and standing he had at the time, two questions follow; What on earth are we to make of a value system and justice system which gives great esteem to human dignity, on which human rights are founded and personal moral responsibility an assumption central to most ethical and legal systems? If Skinner is right, is the only ethical response to ensure that the right kind of control is exercised?

Reformed Muslim Ethics: Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan has been described as a Muslim Martin Luther. He is leading and inspiring a Muslim reformation which might have important implications for Muslim ethics.

Tariq Ramadan does not abandon the Qur’an adopting a liberal view of everything, quite the opposite. Like Luther he looks back to investigate the texts and tries to understand the context of the time in which the Qur’an was given by God. He says he is interested in how we work out the relationship between the text of the Qur’an and the context in which Western Muslims live. In other words, individual Muslims have an important job to do in learning about the Qur’an and understanding how to live out their faith in the modern world. He is critical of some interpretations of the Holy Book which in his eyes incorporate cultural ideas found beyond the Qur’an. For instance, in the case of the Islamic prescription for women to cover their hair. He is critical of the practice in most Islamic-majority countries that take this interpretation and extend it to seclude and segregate women. It is one thing to protect modesty, quite another to conclude that women do not have the right to work. He considers this wrong and against women’s rights. Here there is a lack of understanding of the historical understanding of text and also a failure to realise that the Qur’an is often read through cultural perspectives.

Equally he disputes the view that Muslims should be intolerant of Muslims who change religion. He does not believe they should be killed and agrees with Sufyan Al-Thawri, an 8th-century scholar of Islam. Sufyan Al-Thawri argued that the Qur’an does not prescribe death for someone because he or she is changing religion. The prophet never did such a thing and many people around the prophet changed religions. He never did anything against them.

Tariq Ramadan is also interesting in the topic of homosexuality. When asked about whether someone could be Muslim and gay, he answered by noting that, homosexuality is not perceived by Islam as part of the divine project for men and women and that it is regarded as bad and wrong. However, being Muslim is between the individual and God. In some Christian traditions, the priest or Church mediates that relationship but this is not so in Islam. Being a Muslim is about declaring the shahada – ” I believe there is no god but God and  Muhammad is His Messenger”. That makes a person a Muslim and no one has the right to put you outside the realm of Islam.

The Islamic principles that govern human actions rest on the dignity of the human being and that emphasis on dignity is much closer to many other religious ethical systems and secular ones, such as those to do with human rights, than we might at first think.

For more information about Tariq Ramadan, go to his website: