An Introduction to Moral Principles and Situational Ethics

From a presentation to the Melbourne Unitarian Church Philosophy Discussion Group, September 8, 2002


Whilst the definition of morals derives from the Latin 'moralis', meaning 'custom', contemporary useage describes it as the judgement by which the goodness/evilness of a human action may be ascertained.

Note 'human action' - it is not possible to describe the actions of non-reasoning animals as moral. Animals are described as 'amoral', as distinct from human actions which are 'moral' or 'immoral'.

The general distinction between good/evil, moral/immoral is acting in an injurous fashion and without the consent of the others. Note that these is 'and' not 'or', although that there are some who claim that injury with consent is immoral (which is impossible to determine because the experience of feelings are subjective). The mirror-image of such a position is that it would be immoral to help someone who was unconscious (ie., beneficial behaviour without consent).

There is a distinction between morals and ethics 'a theory or a system of moral conduct' from the Greek and Latin 'ethos' or character. Morals are principled - ethics are situational.

In pragmatic terms morality represents a normative approach from the individual worldview. It is about how we as individuals treat others and how we would like others to treat us. Morality has rational points of connection or distinction with Law (the normative approach from the social worldview) and Sensuality (the aesthetic approach of the individual worldview). In other words, morality is what is "right" with a relationship (sometimes troubled) between what is "legal" and what is "pleasurable".

It also is distorted by irrationalisable claims, such as those resulting from metaphysics (normative claims to the physical worldview) and personal objectivism (objective claims to the individual worldview). Consider the Jew in an fundamentalist/orthodox family who is (or would be, if they were allowed) fond of shellfish - or the institutionalised manic-depressive who, without any pathological behaviour (ie., merely 'odd' not 'dangerous') is forced to take lithium or receive a lobotomy, contrary to their wishes. Note that both of these examples can - and have been - be institutionalised as legal norms!

Historical Overview

Siddhartha Guatama (Buddhism) (563 BCE - 483 BCE)

Laid out by Siddhartha Gautama, 'The Eightfold Path' (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livliehood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) is primarily a procedural code of ethics. The ethical path is based on the morality of seeking to end suffering (dukka) through wisdom (jigyasa).

Human actions (karma) in the Buddhist ethical system are judged based on both the intention or motive (chetanaa) and the consequences (vipaaka) of an action. Divergence of interpretation occurs on the latter, however. Altruistic actions which helped in the establishment and promotion of a just society were encouraged in the dharmaniyama (moral duty code). Buddhist morality rejects the notion of fate, the doctrine of amoral causation (akriyavaada)

Buddhism as a whole does not put does not state particular rules of conduct, rather it emphasises intention. Thus there many versions of Buddhism; Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, Tantric etc. Divergence in application can be quite strong, for example between Theravada and Tantric Buddhism. Whilst both seek the metaphysical-moral goal of abolition of the ego, the Theravada seek to achieve this through rejection of sensual pleasures, whereas the Tantric seek to transcend the ego through highly sensate meditative practise.

Confucious (551 BCE - 479 BCE)

Confucious (the Latinised form of Kong Fu-zi) is credited with editing the "Book of Odes", "Spring and Autumn Annals", commentaries for the "Book of Changes" and conversations with students in the "Analects". A cardinal virtue for Confucious was respect for one's elders, which seemed to be regardless of the behaviour of the elder. Well before Jesus, Confucious quoted his version of the 'Golden Rule' to Zigong "What I do not want others to do to me, I do not want to do to them". He also noted however, that he himself had failed at this.

Confucious differentiated betwen 'the good' and 'the wise', the former tranquil, the latter active. Injury is to be repaid with justice and virtue with virtue. A particular interest with the correct use of language, which should be the first concern of good government, which must lead by working hard. He proposed that if one actions were motivated by profit, they would have many enemies.

Socrates (469 BEC - 399 BCE) and Aristotle (384 BCE - 322 BCE)

The morals of Socrates are best described by Plato ("The Last Days of Socrates") and Xenophon ("Memoirs of Socrates"). He strongly asserted the the role of the conscience in determining moral action, that is avoiding that which causes injury and ruin to the body, and emphasised simplicity in desire.

For ethics, he proclaimed that one should always do good regardless of the circumstances and that do good because it brings happiness. This is part of the Socratic triad where 'truth, justice and beauty' are one and the same and each are skills in themselves that have to be learnt. Socrates actually denied the existence of 'evil' as such, claiming that there was only ignorance. We see a replication of this in Jesus' comments of 'Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing". Interestingly, Socrates also held to state loyalty and that the law was also good, regardless of its content.

Aristotle's two ethical studies are the "Nicomachean Ethics" and the "Eudemian Ethic"' which are clearly indebted to the Socratic and Platonic studies. The key concerns are eudaimonia ("happiness," "flourishing"), and turn to an examination of the nature of aretê ("virtue," "excellence"). Eudaimonia is described as the highest good - pleasure, friendship, health and wealth being subordinate.

In seeking eudaimonia, Aristotle emphasised ethical virtue as a disposition by which one should seek the mean to avoid excess and deficiency. The mean is to be determined by a full consideration of a situation with reason always in control of the emotional. Aristotle insists that no ethical theory can develop a procedure for decisions.

Jesus (4 BCE - 29)

The ethics of Jesus are, surprisingly, somewhat absent of an comprehensive ethical system. Like other religious-metaphysical advocates, the primary principle is piety to God: "You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38). Like other moral thinkers, Jesus proposed "So whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them" (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31) and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

However we find contradictions in his own ethical application. Jesus referred to gentiles as "dogs" (Mark 7:27) and instructed his disciples "Go nowhere among the gentiles" (Matthew 10:5). Opposed to anger (Matthew 5:22), he displayed great anger at the moneylenders in the temple. Whilst claiming that one should "Honor your father and mother", he once scolded his mother for even seeking him at all after he had, at the age of twelve, been missing for several days. Finally, although he preached the principle of forgiveness of others, he was adamant that anyone guilty of the simple act of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit could not possibly receive any sort of forgiveness.

It is hardly unusual among ethical thinkers to occassionally act contrary to the principles they espouse. Socrates himself was a warrior in his youth and by all accounts, quite impressive in causing injury to others. Confucious readily admitted they he has not always lived up to the principles he proposed. And one could convincingly argue that Siddhartha Guatama's contemplative inaction was hardly according to the 'Eightfold Path'.

Muhammad (570 - 632)

Muslim law as written in the Qur'an is quite detailed covering social and political behaviour as well as religious ones. As a religious text, the moral principles are as absolute as the ethical system. Problems arise however because of contradictions in the For example the Qur'an specified that there is no compulsion in religion (Surah 2, Ayat 256) yet it also states "... fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem" (Surah 9, Ayat 5)

The Qur'an, like the Old and the New Testaments, assumes the existence of slavery. It regulates the practice of the institution and thus implicitly accepts it, although to release slaves was a good deed (Surah 5, Ayat 89). This can be compared favourably to Jesus who made no comment at all about the institution of slavery. Polygamy is an established part of traditional Islamic law, with the Quar'an stating that a man is allowed more than one wife if it satisfies the conditions of charity and that each wife is to be treated equitably (Surah 4, Ayat 3).

The ethical system of Muhammad seems utterly varied and dependent on context. At the same time, the Qur'an, like some of the earlier books of the Old Testament, are orientated towards becoming a 'Book of Laws' rather than a study of principles and application. If anything however, the Muslim ethical demand of institutionalised charity is stronger than in other religious-based systems of behaviour.

Kant (1724-1804)

Immanual Kant is undoubtable the most influential modern philosopher. Rejecting a metaphysical basis of moral principles (for metaphysics is beyond space and time and thus beyond our cognitive capacity) Kant sought to establish a non-metaphysical moral grounding and ethical system in "The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals" (1785) and "The Critique of Practical Reason" (1787).

In the former text Kant engaged in "search for and establishment of the supreme principle of morality". In doing so he claims that the only thing that is good without qualification is good will - all other candidates, courage, health, wealth and so forth, can be used for bad purposes and therefor cannot be intrinsically good. Kant claimed that goodness cannot arise from impulse or natural inclination, but rather was a duty. No outcome can be unconditionally good. Good results can be used to bring harm and happiness may be thoroughly undeserved.

Deciding that intention was the basis of good behaviour, Kant grounds intention according to reason and specifically the categorical imperative, which is presented in three versions:

  • 1. "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
  • 2. "Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature."
  • 3. "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only."

Kant's categorical imperative is very demanding as he seperates different types of reasons from each other. In moral action it is insisted that the person who does what is right is not necessarily being moral unless they have the right intention and right reasons as well. The individual who is honest in business because they think it will improve business is not acting morally. To be moral a person would have to be honest in business solely because it is right to be honest.

However, Kant also elaborated on the distinction between morally good and the ethically necessary. An example is given of a man who seeks refuge which is provided. Soon afterwards, another man bearing an axe arrives demanding to know the location of the first man. In such a situation, Kant says that it might be ethically correct to lie, even though it is morally wrong when one has reasons to assume that telling the truth will cause even greater immoral action.

Benthem (1748-1832)

A founder of utilitarian philosophy, the most important moral work is Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, where the principle of the greatest happiness is elaborated. Benthem proposed that human nature can be determined by their relationship to pleasure and pain alone and considered the idea of human community to a "ficticious body" and nothing more than "the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it".

According to Benthem, that which does not maximise the greatest happiness is morally wrong. The moral philosophy therefore reflects a psychological view that pleasure and pain are natural and primary causes of motivation. In calculating pleasure and pain a 'hedonic calculus' based on human equality is used. Benthem's utilitarianism assumes that "each person is to count for one and no one for more than one." To an extent Benthem's hedonism is partially derived from the ancient philosophy Epircuras (c342-270 BCE).

The moral theory of Benthem was supported by the political theory of J.S. Mill, whose father was a friend of Benthem. It has been claimed that Mill originally started writing moral and political philosophy to defend Benthem from a number of critics and in doing so developed a means of implementation. It is embodied in the modern liberal political systems with the notion of universal and equal rights and incorrectly according to some, in the free market economy.

Nietzsche (1844 - 1900)

The basic philosophy of Nietzsche is the proposition that humanity is a condition that must be overcome (from mensch to uber-mensch, or superman, described in "Thus Spake Zarathustra") via the will to power. This is not described in moral terms, but rather as being Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche rejects the idea that domination, exploitation, injury and destruction are objectionable when they are orientated to the enforcement of subjective will.

In "On The Geneology of Morals" Nietzsche condemns notions of 'guilt' or 'conscience' as being the results of servile Christianity and inferior racial and class stocks (Nietzsche was also completely opposed to democracy and public education). In the unpublished essay, On Truth and Lies in an Nonmoral Sense the notion of truth is rejected in favour of "a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms" - that is scientific and moral reasoning are to be rejected for aesthetic reasoning only and according to the will.

Nietzsche gained significant notoriety as the endorsed philosopher of Nazism and is popular among some postmodernist philosophers today. His attacks on metaphysical justifications for moral actions are undoubtably positive and have had a profound influence on 20th century existentialist thought and motivation, not the least due to the brilliance in writing style and richness of metaphor. But in doing so, Nietzche also rejects any moral reasoning at all and rather than being "Beyond Good and Evil" or "nonmoral" as claimed, a morally negative philosophy is actually developed where others exist solely for exploitation by the strong and the sadistic.


Kohlberg has established a developmental theory of moral reasoning within childhood psychology. It is complementary to Piaget's theory of cognitive development. According to Kohlberg there are six stages of moral development, starting from a fear of punishment and potentially reaching universal principles. At the early stages of moral development a child behaves because they are told to do by a voice of authority. In the middle-stages, one engages in 'conventional' behaviour - that which is the norm. At the highest stages one is self-motivated with social mutuality.

It is important to note that Kohlberg requires every individual to pass through one stage before engaging with the next, that he has found very few people anyone who fits his highest stage of morality (although people can occassionally behave in such a fashion), that moral and physical development may vary (indeed, some people go backwards as they get older) and that his own evaluation is based on the reasons given to ethical dilemas rather than absolute criteria.

Kohleberg engaged in some reasonably significant empirical studies and some very interesting structural differences can be noted. In studying societies with differing degrees of economic wealth and political traditions, he found that in poorer and less democratic societies the proportion of people who acted according to higher moral motivations was significantly less. In an comparative study between young adults (teenagers) and mature adults there was the interesting discovery the former had were in general more likely to have higher moral motivations than the latter. Whether this is due to the spirit of the times (early 1970s) or is a general result whereby young adults are idealistic and gradually have their ideals blunted is something demanding further inquiry.

Some Tentative Conclusions

Theologians often develop moral theories and ethical application, although there is some use of revelation in this. Philosophers tend to confine themselves to reason alone. Religious philosophers, through 'higher criticism' of religious texts attempt to derive reasonable interpretations and seek to resolve contradictions of nominally sacred texts whereas religious fundamentalists will interpret literally, regardless of rational contradictions. The argument for the latter is that because the text is the revealed word of god who is infallible and human reasoning is fallible, the allegedly contradictory text is only contradictory to a human mind whereas which can only apprehend the mind of god through faith alone.

There is a common view, largely rejected by philosophers, that morals and ethics are relative. This varies from cultural relativism (that moral values differ from culture to culture and there is no basis for determining superiority between them) or individual relativism (morality values vary from individual to individual). There are three fallacious arguments for this position; one is objective - the argument that because moral application are variable therefore it must be. The second argument is because there are no absolute standards (vis-a-vis the distinction between morals and ethics) then no judgement can be made. The third position is that somehow in order to be tolerant one must be relativistic.

The first relativistic proposition makes a natural fallacy. Just because something is the case doesn't mean that it ought to be the case - and morality, if anything, is about how we ought to behave, not what is currently the case. The second argument also fails, as there are no rational knowledges that are absolute or are subject to complete certaintity. The third fails because in order to be tolerant one is only relativistic about self-regarding acts or those of established by mutual consensus with other actors. Indeed, a total relativist would not think there is any basis for finding tolerance preferable to intolerance.

After this brief summary of some 2,500 years of thought it hardly entirely appropriate to make definitive statements about moral reasoning and ethical behaviour. That said, some tentative conclusions can at least be suggested as an aid to further discussion.

Firstly, the morally good should be balanced balanced by legal norms and individual desires. One should neither slavishly follow nor ignore laws for their own sake, but rather on whether the law is morally right and implementable. Nor should one necessarily divest all their energy in altruisic or socially beneficial behaviour. One needs time to satisfy their own needs and engage in reflection - repressing the ego can be as dangerous and destructive as ignoring the alter.

Secondly, the moral good is a pragmatic action. Whilst sensitivity to the ambigious, the unclear and the unconscious is worthy of consideration, reasonable action really can only be based on the expressions (positive or negative) of the alter. We cannot assume that we are acting for someone else's benefit when they are perfectly capable of determining what is and isn't beneficial by themselves. Forcing someone into a situation that they would rather not be in - even if our subjective opinion or even objective fact says that it is beneficial - is morally reprehensible. Likewise, the application of 'social norms' to moral behaviour, whether based on sacred texts or conventional wisdom, is likewise unprinicipled (albeit much easier for many).

Finally, the moral good is a practical action. Even with due consideration to individual reflection and the concern that immoral actions are usually worse than moral inactions, knowledge is ultimately of limited use without activity, without a socially transformative character. This of course, does beckon priorities in moral behaviour - in which something like Maslow's hierarchy of needs is perhaps not entirely inappropriate. Should we not concern ourselves first and foremost with ensuring that every human being on this planet has food, shelter, security, health and education? And if this is not the case, then what are our priorities?