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The Design Argument


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Making sense of ethics

Peter Manning delves deep into our understanding of ethics and ethical theory

Making sense of ethics

Peter Manning delves deep into our understanding of ethics and ethical theory


We are surrounded by temptations that appeal to our self-interest

All boards (particularly Edexcel 6RS04 1B): Ethics options

When we come to study ethics we may feel excitement at arguing against an approach we do not agree with, leaving the way clear for the theory we want to uphold for ourselves. Alternatively, we can feel confused by the number of theories and wonder how to choose between them. How do we judge what makes a theory workable or not? How can we be sure that our arguments and choices are not driven by our own unexamined assumptions about life, its meaning and how we want to live?

The ethical marketplace

Given a room full of people, each ethical theory will find someone who supports it. We seem locked in a merry-go-round of arguments, in the heat of which we fall back on the relativity of our own individual choice (i.e. you back your approach, I’ll back mine, they are both true for each of us even though we disagree).

The problem with this settlement of the dispute is that it lets us off the hook of continuing to think deeply and in a reflective way about ethics. I would also argue that it robs our chosen approach of its power over our lives, for if we can be that glib about it, we cannot be that serious about the ethical theory we have just argued for.

Yet surely ethics ought to matter to us in a deeply profound way, for ethics is the investigation of ideas about how to live and hold the values in life that we do. Ethics informs our ideas of good and justice, and in turn how society applies the ethics of good and justice creates the political landscape and its accompanying laws that we live our lives within. In short, we cannot live without ethics.


We switch on the television and we get bombarded by adverts trying to sell us stuff. We walk around town and see billboards and posters doing the same thing. We open a newspaper or magazine and within a few pages an advert tries to steal our attention. Much advertising works by appealing to our self-interest or egoism — if only we had this possession or holiday our life would be so much better. In Western society it can sometimes feel that we have to work hard not to be overwhelmed by all these opportunities to indulge ourselves.

One form of egoism is called hedonism. Hedonism is the ethical rule that in choices made the individual seeks his or her own pleasure as the highest good. Another form of egoism focuses on the body and puts the pursuit of health and physical appearance as the driving goal for the decisions we make. This is called narcissism. The focus on self-interest in this ethical approach is clearly self-centred. Such a self-centred approach is justified by arguing that people are motivated by self-interest, and Western culture seems to appreciate this all too well.


In contrast to the focus on the individual in egoism, in utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) developed a focus on the community. Good is defined as the action that creates the most pleasure and least pain for the greatest number of people. This rule is called the principle of utility because the action that works to achieve such a good end is what should be done. To help us decide which action to take, Bentham proposed that we use his hedonic calculus, which helps us judge pleasure and pain in relation to seven criteria:

■ intensity

■ duration

■ certainty

■ extent

■ remoteness

■ richness

■ purity

Making quantitative judgements with such criteria is not without its interpretative problems. In light of this, John Mill (1806–73) argued that we need to focus on the quality of pleasure. He suggested that there are two kinds of goods: lower pleasures of the body and higher pleasures of the mind. Mill felt that sometimes the lower pleasures of the body need to be subordinated to the more enriching but perhaps harder to attain pleasures of the mind.

Within utilitarianism there is disagreement about how to develop utilitarian principles to guide decision making. The act utilitarianism of Bentham, the rule utilitarianism of Mill, and more recently the preference utilitarianism of R. M. Hare (1919–2002) all offer different approaches to how the utilitarian may seek to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people:

■ Do utilitarians learn from each ethical application of utilitarianism about how to apply it in future (a case law approach)?

■ Do they try and develop general guiding principles from the start, such as be truthful or there will be no trust in society (a general law approach)?

■ Or do they base their approach on satisfying the wishes of the greatest number of people (a democratic approach)?

Why do we feel the need to help others

Kantian ethics

While egoism and utilitarianism are focused on pleasure gained by the self — one prioritises the individual, the other favours the community — Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) provided a very different approach to ethics. For Kant, morality is driven by an act of will which is itself informed by rationality. Rationality is internal to the self and not determined by the physical world. We thus determine how we act in the world freely.

Our free acts should not be guided by a concern for consequences, as in utilitarianism, or our inclinations, pleasures or base instincts, but rather by the moral law that reason has constructed for itself. Reason, being a universal attribute of humanity, produces an objective criterion by which to guide ethical decision making in the idea of the categorical imperative.


The categorical imperative is formulated in three different ways, but they all say the same thing: only act in a way that you would be happy for everyone to repeat the same action and so treat you. By living according to this rule, in as much as we also attain happiness, such happiness is justifiable and honourable as we have also fulfilled our duty to the rational moral law.

Situation ethics

The situation ethics of Joseph Fletcher (1905–91) rejected the rigidity of Kant’s ethical approach. Kant’s guiding principle is often compared to the New Testament principle of the Golden Rule in the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 7 Verse 12, which states ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you: for this is the law and the prophets’ (NRSV). But for Fletcher the primary ethical imperative is love, as illustrated in the New Testament through the life, teaching and death of Jesus. In enabling love to be a guide to moral decision making, Fletcher uses four working principles:

pragmatism: a proposed course of action should be able to work

relativism: what is the most loving action is defined by the situation

positivism: Christian love is prioritised over everything else as an act of faith

personalism: loving people comes first over any principle or law

Ethical confusion

There are other ethical theories and even in a brief summary of the four selected here we can see enough scope for disagreement. The diversity of approaches illustrates the problems of choice, with each approach defining what ‘good’ in ethics means in different ways. Is it pleasure for the self, pleasure maximised within a community, to act rationally, or to do the loving thing?

In deciding how to apply the good, do we consider the consequences of a course of action or follow the dictates of duty? In applying ethics do we go with what works or with some notion of rights? Even if we favour one theory over another is it really clear to us why the theory is favoured and on what basis the theory itself is justified?

Surprising ethical agreements

When considering utilitarianism, Kantian and situation ethics in opposition to egoism, it becomes clear that what the three theories share is an interest in how the self relates to the wider community. An individual egotist might gain pleasure through social interest and the help of others but such wider communal interest is not embedded in the theory of egoism itself — it rather emerges through the individual choices and interests of the egotist. In egoism the self is the end and completion of ethics. This is not the case in the other three theories.

Although they may disagree over the ends justifying the means (utilitarianism and situation ethics) or the end justifying itself (Kantian ethics), they are focused on some kind of completion of ethics that transcends the individual by insisting that ethics is concerned with the social group. Although the theories also vary in the way they establish a universal basis for ethics, each expects its application to produce actions that are positive for the group as a whole:

■ the greatest good for the greatest number (utilitarianism)

■ the categorical imperative (Kantian ethics)

■ the most loving action (situation ethics)

Thus, although they disagree in content, taken in the most general sense, they share a common directionality about the purpose of ethics. But why should this be the case? Why do our ethical theories not display a wider range of ethical intents?

Rethinking a natural law approach

The medieval Christian theologian St Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), building on aspects of Aristotle’s thinking, argued that there is a natural law that human beings are naturally inclined towards, as it is part of our nature. The natural law lives in and through us. Without dwelling on the specifics of Aquinas’ discussion on cardinal, temporal and revealed virtues within his Christian theology, it is helpful to note his more general principles of natural law, which he saw as universal for humanity.

The self has to be preserved

The first principle states that the self has to be preserved. For Aquinas this has theological significance, as he relates the idea to this life and the securing of an afterlife. But if we explore the idea of natural law in a wider sense, what this principle claims is that life is precious. One might argue over whether such a claim should be accepted but from an evolutionary perspective we are biologically programmed to want to survive and protect our young. In community living, in gaining protection for ourselves we offer others the same benefit.

Life’s purpose

Another principle is that life has a purpose which is found in living, having children, learning, being part of a community and worshipping God. While the last point begs a host of questions about the existence of God, it is hard to deny that our lives find their own purposes within our families and communities. We are social animals and our lives gain their coherence and narrative context, their structure and meaning, through our memories and cultural stories.

Using reason

A third principle is that human beings share a common nature in that we can reason, and use reason, to act well, develop virtues and fulfil our potential as human beings within those communities. A broad-based natural law approach gives rise to virtue ethics articulating virtues that promote the preciousness of life and communal purposefulness.

Many living things have a biological imperative to nurture their young

What comes naturally

While the specifics of Aquinas’ natural law theory — set as it is within the Christian tradition — may be rejected, there is still wisdom in these three general principles that we cannot ignore. It is interesting to note that with natural law theory we have another ethical system with a communal focus directed at creating positive outcomes. Perhaps that the theories keep exhibiting such a framework is not accidental: might it be that such a framework is the natural law manifesting itself? Ethical theory has to become perverse, perhaps even irrational, to undo what comes naturally to the articulation of ethics.

Who is ethics for?

The ‘self’ as the problem

Within egoism, utilitarianism, Kantian and situation ethics, the focus of discussion is on the self or individual. The whole Western philosophical tradition perhaps owes such a focus to Plato. Plato discusses philosophy within the context of a unified self, an individual soul set apart from the material world. Such an inward turn removes out of sight a proper exploration of how that self might be constituted or created.

Assuming the self as a starting point for knowledge, let alone ethics, has been in trouble since David Hume (1711–76) declared — in defiance of Descartes (1596–1650) — rationalist foundation for knowledge that:

‘For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.’


Ever since Hume, the self has been in retreat and in danger of fragmenting and disappearing under the onslaught of postmodern philosophy and much of psychology.

If the self is a problematic notion for the foundation of knowledge, it cannot help but be under pressure as a foundation for ethics. In retrospect, Elizabeth Anscombe may have been right in her 1958 essay ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ to argue for the setting aside of teleological (utilitarian) and deontological (Kantian) ethics until psychology had had time to shed light on moral reasoning — thus allowing ethical theory to proceed on a less intractable basis.

‘Persons’ as the solution

If not grounded on the self or the individual, what is the focus of ethics? Aristotle pointed the way forward when stressing that living the good life was not an individual pursuit, as we live with others in a society. We are born into a family and a community — we may later choose the life of a hermit, but it is not our starting point. However, philosophy has been slow to build on the importance of communal living for ethics, as it is still focused on individuals doing the relating. Even Kant fails to move the ethical focus away from the individual — even when he talks about love (for love is a duty of the categorical imperative) it is the rational, objective, dispassionate living on principle that dominates.

But how can romantic love be summed up by duty? Romantic love is passionate and moves beyond Kantian notions of reason, yet it forms a key part of our lives. Kantian ethics fails to capture, in this example, what it means to be human — as Robert Solomon argues in The Joy of Philosophy (1999, Oxford University Press).

A focus on duty and reason misses the heart of ethics, which, as focused on communal living, is relational to the core of its being. Instead of individuals we have persons. Using the term person instead of individual may sound like semantics but in reality it makes a whole world of difference. The term ‘individual’ keeps at the forefront the problematic idea of an independent, isolated self upholding and putting in place its own unitary being.

That is not to say that the term ‘person’ is without its own conceptual problems. However, ‘person’ immediately brings notions of relationship to the forefront of ethics — relationships which in some part help constitute what we would otherwise assume to be the autonomous ‘self’. How much of the person is constructed by biology, language or culture is open to debate (and probably always will be,given the limits of our ability to understand the world), but will involve an interplay of all three. Ethics cannot help but be dynamic, multilayered and nuanced in its application to humanity.

The complexity of humanity is why ethical theories struggle so much to bring clarity to our decision making. The ethical key (rule) does not fit the situational lock. Thus, we are left confused, looking for a definitive answer when in fact there cannot be one, as the ethical response is enacted by a person’s character engaging with, and relating to, the demands of the situation. There is no universal rational grounding for ethics beyond the broad promptings of the natural law because ethics is always lived in context — the context being of lives lived in specific cultures.

Both absolute and relative

Set within the wider context of natural law, virtue theory is free to sum up and express the different cultural, religious and psychological modes of thinking and acting within different societies. Each community develops and sustains its own tradition of virtues. As Peter Vardy states in Being Human (2003, Darton, Longman & Todd):

‘Different ethical systems may conflict but they may nevertheless still contribute to the metamorality [general natural law] as they may provide different pathways to the same end of becoming human.’

In ethics it is often asked whether we should pursue an absolutist or relativistic theory, or in other words a universal or parochial ethical approach. The answer provided here, which hopefully will no longer sound like an oxymoron, is both. Natural law provides the absolute grounding of ethics, and virtue ethics provides community voice to specific values as lived out within particular communities.

I hope this article will inspire you to give virtue theory a closer look.


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