Some thoughts on Ethics


So I began to think about ethics. It’s a term that I bandy about quite a bit, but rarely challenge or question. When you start to delve into ethics, you come up against definitions which suggest that it is to do with ‘right behaviour’ or ‘morality’. But some of these definitions can be circular. A good definition of ethics seems to be that it is the practice of determining ‘right behaviour’. In this case, until we add meaning to it, ‘right’ is an open ended concept. So until we determine what ‘right behaviour’ is, we don’t really know what ‘right’ is.

It seems to me that the question we should be asking is ‘how do we determine right behaviour’. It also seems to me that right behaviour, like any kind of behaviour, must be driven by some kind of motivation. We are motivated to do things to satisfy certain values or to achieve certain ends. Either way, there are a multitude of values and ends, which could be the source of motivation for action. But there are probably fewer that come within the sphere of ethics.

Ethics cannot be about the human being acting in isolation and can only be about the human being in relation (at least) to other humans and (arguably) those other phenomena with which he/she has a relationship. So that (certainly in ecosophy) we must consider, not only relations with other human beings, but also relations with other sentient creatures, the whole of nature and our environment.

The values that determine ethical motivations will include feelings like obligation, compassion and empathy as well as consequences such as harm and benefit. We might ask the question: ‘where do these feelings come from’? ‘Are they timeless or transient?’ ‘Are they fundamental or expedient?’ ‘Are they arguable or axiomatic?’ I would argue that their origin is within us as human beings, even as primates, and derive from our immediate familial relationships. Obligation also has the residue of subservience to some more powerful or important personage (such as a king or father) as well as the almost opposite notion of a dependent (a child or aged relative). We may have obligations to those who are above us and can dictate to us just as we may have obligations to those below us and who depend on us for certain kinds of support.

Compassion and empathy are rather difference to obligation. Compassion suggests a direct concern, perhaps due to kind of empathy, whereas empathy itself derives from a sense of affinity, or recognition of similarities, resemblances and ultimately kinship.

My concern to delve into the nature of ethics was to explore the Deep Ecology proposition that humanity is an integral part of nature and as such is in direct relationships with natural phenomena and particularly with other sentient creatures. Deep Ecologists have arrived at the notion that all aspects of nature have intrinsic value. But having said this, we can also understand our obligations to nature by extending the human values that determine ethical relationships derived from our human relationships, to the whole of nature. The central theme of ethics, it seems to me, is that, as sentient and cognitive creatures we need to maximise the benefits we bring to both humanity and nature and minimise the harm we cause to anything that can suffer from that harm. This at least establishes a starting point.

Sadly, it seems, not everyone plays to these rules!

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