ENV100: LECTURE 4 3 OCTOBER 2013
Introduction to Ethics
- Ethics: is a branch of philosophy and is the study of morals and values. There are
religious ethics and professional ethics as well. Ethics is to morality as geology is to
rocks. It is hard to avoid this everyday usage. In this class, the focus is on the history
of philosophical reflection on ethics. Ethics, the term, is used as a synonym for
morality but this is not the case technically. There is a difference b/w morals and
Morals: what is right/wrong? What are the rules that govern your
behavior? Don’t lie, cheat or steal
- Ethics is the study of morality, the systematic study of human moral behavior, a
systematic reflection on the customs and habits of a group of people
Important distinctions one needs to make
- Description vs prescription: it is important to distinguish from ‘what is’ vs ‘what
ought to be’. It is often assumed that the way human life/society is structured is how
it has ‘always been’ structured. Eg: in Toronto, homelessness wasn’t always as
prevalent as it is today. There had been structural, economical and political changes
that led to homelessness in North America. Therefore, it is important to see ‘what is’
from ‘what ought to be’.
- Law vs morality: something may be legal (eg slavery in the 1800s) but may not be
moral. Henry David Thoreau made that distinction and said that just because it is
legal does not make it acceptable or moral.
Law sets the minimum standards for morality and is subject to some
form of violent punishment
Ethical obligations extend well beyond legal morals.
Eg: killing a person is illegal and will be arrested. But are you legally
compelled to help a homeless person? Will you be arrested if you do
not help? Are you ethically bound? It is also true that sometimes a law can be immoral and acts of civil
disobedience aren’t necessarily employed to rectify it
Eg: Thoreau (video and his essay on civil disobedience) saw Mexico
being attacked by USA as completely immoral and refused to pay tax
to support the Mexican-American war. He talked about the role of civil
disobedience. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi are major
exponents of civil obedience, objection to immoral laws
- It is imperative for people to have the freedom to choose b/w ‘what is’ and ‘what
ought to be’. Ability to choose allows us to make ethical decisions.
- Fact vs value: important to distinguish good moral decision making as something
depending on facts and values. You can have excellent values but can still make poor
moral judgments because your facts may be wrong. You can also be able to
understand thoroughly all the different details of a moral problem but still make
poor judgment because you don’t see the moral issues clearly or your values are
faulty. This pertains to the thoughts of David Orr who said that just because we are
educated about an issue doesn’t necessarily mean we will make the right ethical
How to develop moral character: Character or virtue ethics & Discernment
- Character and virtue ethics: For Aristotle, ethics wasn’t simply about choosing
good over evil. The real concern in ethics was your character and how character was
shaped over time by practicing good values/acts habitually till its no longer a
thought process (a habit of the heart)
These virtues aren’t taught in a classroom but learnt by repetition
For the ancient Greeks, stories were important to develop moral
character so much so that Plato talked about censoring the story plot
if the story involved immoral acts
Acts in the media portray good and evil, but how does that shape your
character? - Discernment: it is not always about making the correct decision but rather it lies in
being able to discern/see the real problem at hand that needs to be resolved.
Sometimes we allow complex and technical dimensions overcrowd the moral issue.
Discerning moral issues is as important as the technical dimensions
For many people, discernment is largely an issue of the character
Eg: Aldo Leopold discerning a limitation of ethics and trying to extend
it beyond the ethical framework, which is not sufficient to focus on
human relationships. He believes that a new ethic, the land ethic, be
Two types of strands for moral reasoning or problem solving: Teleological (or
consequentialist) OR Deontological (or non-consequentialist)
- Teleological approach: comes from the Greek word meaning ‘end’ or ‘objective’. In
this type of reasoning, a moral decision is based its outcome or consequence.
Regardless of what the action might be, actions are moral to the degree to which
they lead to the desired goal. Eg: a branch of this is utilitarianism, which states that
the proper end for moral action should be the greatest happiness or the greatest
good or the greatest number. This determines whether something is moral or not.
Moral decision-making is thus a calculation of what actions will produce the greatest
happiness/pleasure and the least pain. Might giving a happy pill (that led to no
harmful effects) to everyone be moral (drugging a population)? This type of
reasoning suggests results, rather than underlying values or premises.
- Deontological approach: this is related to ‘what ought to be’, determined by moral
laws and principles (which are written or sometimes unwritten). Regardless of the
effects or consequences, this method holds certain actions as wrong in and of itself.
There are acts that are always wrong, no matter what, and you can’t justify them in
terms of a higher value. Eg: rape, cheating, killing animals for sport. That is a
A strand of the deontological approach is the Categorical Imperative
Categorical imperative was designed by Immanuel Kant It requires the decision maker to be willing to make an individual
action into a universal moral law (what if everybody did this, what if
everyone could cross the street whenever they wanted to)
It acts as if your individual action could become a universal law.
Therefore, a person must use reasoning to determine the universal
implication of their individual action. Determining the appropriate
rules is important.
Kant suggests that the only rule that governs actions is a (…??)
Eg: informing people of what is going to happen if they choose to
participate in a research (give them a written consent form) is a direct
result of Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative
Kant said that morally, you cannot treat a human being as a means to
an end. Have to treat them as a person in and of itself. You don’t use
people as a means to an end and not an end of himself/herself. Eg: it is
wrong to flirt with someone in order to get a third person’s attention.
This is a command that needs to be categorically followed.
Another strand of the deontological approach is the Divine
^ this relates to an authority higher than human beings. Relevant for