Morals and Ethics

From The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition:

Rules or habits of conduct, especially of sexual conduct, with reference to standards of right and wrong: a person of loose morals; a decline in the public morals.
a. A set of principles of right conduct. b. A theory or a system of moral values.

How do people come up with morals and ethics?

When I was growing up, it seemed pretty simple. Everyone knows what's right and what's wrong. Killing people is bad, helping them good. How hard is that?

Alas, it wasn't that simple. Are we ever justified in killing someone? What if it will save the lives of millions? Is it justified when defending yourself from attack? These are tough questions, and there are no clear-cut answers.

Over the years I spent time thinking about idealistic morality. Every time I thought about it, though, it all seemed to come back to a question. What is the goal, the purpose, of a moral system? I'm not asking why we should have morals; rather, every moral system that was consistent seemed to go back to some first principle. The question was which question should be asked.

For example, say you had to deal with killing criminals. Is this acceptable? Answers always seemed to come back to a defining moral principle such as "the greatest good for the greatest number" or "thou shalt not kill". But behind these principles lie the question why these? What good does this principle accomplish?

Take "thou shalt not kill". Why? If there's never a good reason to kill, then that means everything else is not as important. What goal does this fulfill?

Thinking along those lines always led me to thinking about the end and the means. This was ends-driven morality; the ultimate principle led to how to decide answers to other questions. The ends justified the means, it seemed.

Then college hit. My feelings on this subject broadened considerably when I saw two movies: The Killing Fields and Extremities. The former is the true story of how Dith Pran, a photographer, survived the Khmer Rouge's genocide in Cambodia. My reaction was visceral: this is wrong. There were no questions. What happened was wrong.

Extremities affected me strongly. Early in the film, a woman is attacked. Though she manages to flee, he shows up at her house later and attacks her again. She disables him by spraying his eyes with insect poison, and ties him up. The movie goes on from there, but my thoughts were on a completely different level. I was replaying the attack, and thinking:

This man has proved that he will always present a threat to you. He has attacked you and has said he will do so again. You will always be in danger as long as he exists. He is a threat. Do whatever you need to do but first and foremost eliminate the threat. Even if you have to kill him.

I'm not normally a violent person, but this took the matter to kill or be killed. I learned something about myself that day. I learned even more when I thought about it later.

The first lesson, the immediate one, was that I would be capable of killing. My feelings about the death penalty were different.

The second lesson came upon reflection. My morality had changed after watching each of these films. There was no change of "grand principle"; instead, these were changes due to specific scenarios. This was the antithesis of what I had thought about morality. Is it possible, I wondered, to have an ad hoc morality?

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that that was exactly what I had. Sure, I had some general principles - do no harm except in self-defense, et cetera - but those individual principles do not come from one fundamental principle. There was no grand moral design to the world, there was only a patchwork.

Maybe that's for the best. With a mix of specific, bottom-up cases, the end cannot justify the means. Combined with a set of higher, top-down principles, we have a flexible system that allows to make moral and ethical decisions in unfamiliar situations. The interplay between them prevents us from making extreme decisions.

Sturgeon's Definitions

Another definitions of morals and ethics comes from Theodore Sturgeon's masterwork, More Than Human:

Society's code for individual survival.
An individual's code for society's survival.

These incredible definitions cover a huge range of cases. Sturgeon's examples of morality include "our righteous cannibal and the correctness of naked man in a nudist group.". Morals answers the question how should an individual live in society?. Ethics, on the other hand, asks the question what should society be? ("And that's your ethical reformer: he frees his slaves, he won't eat humans, he 'turns the rascals out.'")

My reactions to The Killing Fields and Extremities were ethical reactions; they revealed my unconscious ideas of how society should be. I'm not saying they're the single answer; capital punishment is an incredibly tough subject. But I am convinced that releasing a human who threatens someone's life is not an ethical act.

It makes me think.

Last updated 22 October 1998
All contents ©1998-2002 Mark L. Irons