Welcome to the Ethics page...
The Radio 4 series 'In Our Time' chaired by Melvyn Bragg, has covered a good number of topics relevant to the study of ethics.
Podcasts are freely available covering: Free Will, Guilt, Altruism, Duty, Virtue, Good and Evil, as well as many other areas of philosophy and individual thinkers.
Just click on the image to go to the website page.
Mary Warnock 'Dishonest to God' Continuum, 2010
When I bought this book, I assumed from its title that it would contribute mainly to the
Philosophy of Religion. I was wrong. It’s a book that everyone studying ethics should read.
The first half of the book gives a wonderfully clear outline of the issues of life and death – abortion, euthanasia, IVF, the status and treatment of the human foetus, cloning, stem cell research – in terms of the debates when these matters were brought before parliament in the UK.
For anyone doing ethics at A level, this is a wonderful place to start to unpack these issues.
She also explores the basis upon which the law and ethics should be built, the main thrust of her argument (and hence the title of the book) being that religious authority should not be presented as an alternative to rational debate. Those wanting to legislate for a secular society should present reasons for their view that are accessible to anyone, whether religious or not. Religion is seen as a source of imaginative experience and can thus contribute to moral debate, but when it comes to legislation it should not claim any special authority.
The book also explores the relationship between morality and law – setting the moral debates in the context of the framing of legislation. It is a beautifully clear exposition of key ethical issues.
Further reflections on my sexy carrots...
Since I put this image on my home page a few weeks ago, I've been reflecting on why I was amused to come across this pair of entwined carrots in the local supermarket.
In ethical arguments we always distinguish between the actions of inanimate things and those that are the result of human choice. The gun that is bought for self-protection can also be used for murder. The car, driven while under the influence of alcohol, becomes a lethal weapon. However, it is not the gun or the car that bears moral responsibility, but the human agent.
Carrots cannot be morally responsible or commit to relationships, which is why I found it amusing to see this pair apparently cuddling. The growth of a carrot is physically determined; end of story. But - and it is a major 'but' in ethical terms - it is still very difficult to prove that the actions of human beings are not equally determined by physical, biological, genetic and social forces beyond their control. We experience freedom and therefore accept responsibility for actions. With hindsight, however, and with a scientific or 'objective' approach to human action and motivation, the issue is far from clear. Might our experience of freedom be an illusion?
Personally, I am sufficiently attracted to Buddhist philosophy and existentialism to consider that our experience should be the starting point for philosophical reflection, not some apparently scientific or 'objective' account of events. The former is rich in moral, aesthetic, cultural and personal resonance; the latter tends to lead to a rather arid reductionism. For much of the 20th century, philosophy aped the success of science and sought to use empirical evidence as the criterion for claiming that a statement had meaning. They always did their philosophy differently on the Continent and in the East.
The problem is knowing how we engage with a world that can be described by science, without projecting onto it human emotions and intentions - as with the carrots. Everything we experience is shot through with personal elements of interpretation and intention. The tree is not just a tree but a source of shade, or fuel, or money. Several articles recently have pointed to the idea that religion might be quite useful although factually untrue. Whether you accept that position or not, there is a sinister and dangerous parallel - that free will and moral responsibility are also useful but factually untrue. However much we are analysed and described, we cannot allow ourselves to become objects. We are not carrots, and if we cuddle, it has (and creates) significance.
The Open University...
The Open University has a set of 10 podcasts introducing issues in ethics and political philosophy. Entitled 'Justice and Morality' you can hear them by following this link:
And for a whole range of material on ethics, visit the Open University on:
Sam Harris on science and moral values...
Agree with him or not - and I'm one of those who do not agree with him on many points - Sam Harris argues well and gives everyone a great deal to think about. Here is a short lecture in which he claims that science can provide a basis for ethical values. This is a great way to start the discussion about how facts and values are related. Naturally, being Sam Harris, he has a few juicy criticisms of religion in store, but don't let that (if you are from a religious background) stop you appreciating the logic of his argument. A great stimulus piece for groups of ethics students!
Whether facts and values should be kept separate has always been a big issue for ethics. Sam Harris, in the lecture featured here, wants to link them. Here, at the other extreme is A J Ayer (in Language, Truth and Logic)…
‘…. in saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making any factual statement, not even a statement about my own state of mind. I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments. And the man who is ostensibly contradicting me is merely expressing his moral sentiments. So that there is plainly no sense in asking which of us is in the right. For neither of us is asserting a genuine proposition.’
But does that view – in which moral views are merely subjective wishes, without factual basis – adequate? Does it help or hinder the process of moral decision-making? And particularly, if it is merely a matter of ‘moral sentiments’, should we not ask why we should have such sentiments in the first place?
Listen to Sam Harris critically - the relationship between objective facts, science and moral values is rather more slippery than he would have us believe!