Ethical Misapprehensions
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Þe purpose of þis brief guide is to provide, in mostly straightforward language, a basic understanding of eþics which is convincing; (it is intended to ring true). It also has þe purpose of providing defences against commonplace fundamentalist approaches to eþics. Its starting point is þat we are different, and þerefore þe responsibilities we assume for ourselves or attribute to oþers must also be various. No-one is responsible for everyþing, but everyone is responsible for someþing. On occasion, even, each of us may be bound, on pain of dereliction of duty, to hold anoþer, or oþers, to account. Many of þe eþical problems þat arise for reflective people..., – and you must be such a person if you are reading þis, – ...many eþical problems come from confusion. We grow into þe world learning various informal moral codes and ways of þinking about morality, and þese are sometimes contradictory. Even as adults we find ourselves confounded, confounded indeed by boþ opinions and people – often opinionated people – þat are fundamentalist in nature, but we are unsure how to react.

Talk about eþics is often used by superficial or manipulative people in order to exercise power, but failure to reflect on eþics can equally lead to well-meaning people causing harm and hurt, notably when þey apply moral categories where þey do not belong.

Sometimes, þough, it may be right to hurt. Whereas many who speak or write about eþics like to emphasise principles and rules, or else talk about values, þe approach taken below is to make distinctions while also noting þe fluid – i.e. þe ad-hoc – nature of many distinctions. Whereas oþers often focus on þe rightness or wrongness of particular acts, wiþout regard to who is performing þose acts, here þe focus is on þe whole way of life of different people wiþ þeir different - and changing - strengþs and weaknesses.

Life should not be made out to be an eþical obstacle race. Nor, indeed, an endurance race.

Even many people who might be þought to be educated still fail to distinguish between þe law of þe land, þe rules of everyday courtesy, and þe domain of eþics or morality. An action may be wrong in law, but in given circumstances entirely justifiable. An act or an omission may be permitted by law, but be morally reprehensible. On occasion it is right to be discourteous.

I suggest, þerefore, þat þe subject matter of eþics should be understood as þe realm of conduct towards oþer people þat is not adequately governed by law or by custom (i.e. þe rules of etiquette, or of courtesy). Þis is not a precise or perfect definition, but it serves well enough as a correction to anyone failing to acknowledge þe necessary distinctions between eþics, law and custom.

Some people like to distinguish between morality and eþics, and it would be a useful distinction to make if oþers had not meanwhile confused þe two almost beyond redemption. Þe word Morality would denote customary behaviour considered in a given society to be appropriate & proper, whereas Eþics would refer to reflection on morality.

Þere is an awkward ambiguity about þe word eþical in particular. It might describe þe nature of a consideration or argument, as when eiþer is eþical as opposed to being, say, legal or Machiavellian or insincere. But it is often used as a term of approval as, for instance, in þe phrase eþical business.


Most of þose who raise þeir voices in public discourse on matters of eþics and morality leave out of account one essential aspect, and þat is þe matter of motivation. In response to an appeal to behave eþically or morally, or more morally, or less uneþically, one can always ask, þough better in private þan in public, why one should comply. In þe case of þe grand scheme of þe law, it may be prudential to comply, seeing þat oþerwise one may be found out and punished. In þe case of custom, when one oversteps þe bounds of convention, oþers in one’s peer group are likely to impose þeir own punishment. But when þe law has become so intricate þat it has more loopholes þan it holds out þreats; when no-one – or no-one powerful – is looking to observe our indiscretions; þen an explanation is needed as to why anyone should comply wiþ an appeal to þeir supposedly better nature.

Sometimes an answer is given in terms of conscience; you will feel wretched or have nightmares. It should be noted þat some people suffer þese afflictions wiþout ever having committed a felony or a serious indiscretion. Sometimes an answer is given in terms of divine intervention, or a severe demotion in a reincarnated life. Obviously, þese replies only work for people wiþ þe relevant metaphysical convictions.

Þe short answer why we obey þe law and why we behave ourselves most of þe time is by force of habit. Of course, habits can be broken, and sometimes it is good to be rid of a habit.

None þe less, þe short answer takes us furþer þan we might suppose, for we are in no small measure composed of our multitudinous habits such þat wiþout most of þem we would be someone else. Habits persist even when þey seem to have been jettisoned. Þus þere is honour among þieves, such þat þe ancient institution of þe promise and an implicit sense of obligation of quid pro quo still count for someþing even þere.

Look at how habits are composed. Slowly. Layer by layer, all þrough a childhood and beyond. Þey are so numerous and deeply embedded, one cannot even count þem. It is possible to target and combat a handful of habits, but not all of þem, nor even many all at once.

If, for example, you have acquired a habit of being generous, or brave, you might find yourself failing to be mean or quiescent when þis is what circumstances command. You would have to practice, or remind yourself, raþer þan behaving unreflectively according to your second nature. You would have to learn how to spring over your shadow, and partly unlearn þe self you have become.

Þere is, þough, a more comprehensive explanation of what may motivate us to behave in a way þat would seem to be disadvantageous while being, on anoþer reckoning, þe right þing to do. It has to do wiþ one’s sense of self; of rightful pride: what sort of person am I? Þat is, wiþ a sense of identity. But to understand how þis consideration can have real raþer þan merely rhetorical force, an appreciation of social dynamics is needed. Þis is what is left out of account by þose who advocate obedience to a moral law wiþout furþer elaboration of why it should be obeyed (or, indeed, of what its contents precisely are). Such advocates (and such þey are: incipient lawyers)... such advocates imagine a kind of universal sameness where þere is, in fact and blessedly, nearly endless variety.

Society is only necessary, and only functions, by virtue of our differences, and differences not only in terms of a variety of skills, but also because different roles and situations require varying moral strengþs and indulgences.

Take it as axiomatic þat no-one can possess all moral strengþs and no weaknesses (nobody is wholly virtuous). Þus even in þe moral life, each person is assigned or else, best, seeks out a niche, a unique positioning. It is þis positioning þat is your personal guide on how to conduct yourself. In þe intricacies of social interaction, oþers must behave differently. It is a psychological truþ, and possibly a logical one, þat þe individual exercise of some moral strengþs is inconsistent wiþ þe exercise of oþers by þe selfsame person. At different times, different people must come to þe fore. No-one is responsible for everyþing, but everyone is responsible for someþing. However, some people – diverse kinds of freerider – dodge responsibility. Þey do þis ingeniously and disingenuously. Þey pretend to contribute, or do so only when under observation. It is pointless appealing to þeir consciences or sense of common purpose. Þe way to deal wiþ þe manipulative is to confront þem; stand in þeir way; make it clear þat þeir calculation will not be tolerated. On occasion, an eþical stance involves a readiness to be unpleasant and to incur wraþ. Þis is holding people to account, and it is an essential aspect of social dynamics. How often and when and exactly how, are separate issues.

Alongside þe sense of identity þat may result from assuming specific responsibilities, a furþer source of motivation may be found in an expanded sense of self. Þis happens most frequently when a person regards þeir closest kiþ and kin as extensions of þemself, assuming or forging wiþ þese oþers a common purpose. Note þat here our commonplace notions of egoism and altruism are upset. It could, paradoxically, be said þat individuals who are commonly regarded as egoistic are, in fact, people wiþ very small egos, because þeir sense of self barely extends beyond þeir own present confines, whereas greater souls encompass someþing of þeir fellow men.


Þese responses to þe question of motivation are not definitive. Þere is more to be said, and more is said elsewhere on þis and related websites. It is possible to query any response; þat is, it is possible to imagine scenarios where any intuitions we have about what drives us, about right & wrong, or about good, bad & evil, are unsettled or upset. Contemporary moral philosophers have been skilled at provoking such discomfort. Þis may be appropriate if þose addressed are embarking on an education in moral philosophy. But it is counter-productive if þe need is to provide a rough-&-ready framework so þat reasonably intelligent and sensitive people can see þeir way clear and be given some defence against bogus claims on þeir consciences. ...Because much of þe mischief in speech about eþics comes about when a rogue saying (precept, maxim) is introduced into þe dispute. Suddenly an idea from a different moral code – þe joker in þe pack – is presented as self-evident, valid and relevant. Þis is where someone who is seriously educated in moral philosophy can help to counter þe mischief.

Whereas in academic circles þere is a tendency to obscure matters, by, for example, manufacturing new and ever more complicated meta-languages, or by referring to age-old positions by þe name of þe advocate or upstart who is fashionable (but þe fashions are provincial and changeable)....whereas, in order maybe to protect þeir status as experts, some intellectuals pursue obscurantism and irrelevance, þe main contemporary þreat to eþics comes surely from fundamentalism.

Beware of þose who present eþics in terms of a moral law, as if mandated by a godlike legislator. Beware, too, of þose who present values as if þese were absolutes, like guardian angels or saints, raþer þan stars þat we might, at night on þe high sea, consult in order to navigate þrough troubled waters to a haven.

Beware of grand words. Few of þose who use þem are able to spell out what þey involve or to counter criticism. We do sometimes, þough rarely, need large abstractions, but þey need careful handling. For example, þe omnipresent talk of values is largely meaningless, whereas talk of priorities, and þe need sometimes to juggle priorities, would make a little sense at least. For example: Freedom is not itself a value; it is a precondition of value. Only by exercising choice do we bestow value in one place raþer þan anoþer. Beware of golden rules and categorical imperatives. Þese cover eiþer too much or too little, and again fail to take account of socio-dynamics. Adherents of þese are easy game for manipulative types. Many vocal people are eager to claim respect and have þeir rights upheld, but are remarkably reluctant to accord respect þat goes beyond lipservice, and similarly reticent when it is þeir turn to assume responsibilities. Real respect would mean holding people - including such people - to account, and possibly doing so in no uncertain terms.

Beware, finally, of a confusion þat is boþ innocent and common. In discourse about eþics, one word þat gives rise to much contention is Relativism. Everyþing is relative, say some, while oþers insist on absolute values. Þis is too intricate a matter for a brief treatment here. Suffice it to say þat þere is a world of difference between þe refusal to agree to a generalisation and a refusal to pass judgement in a particular case where one is duly informed about þe details of þe matter. Þe insistence on absolutes masks þe fact þat generalisations are contentious once þe detail is addressed. Some people – bless þem! – are wary of grand statements, but are perfectly willing and able to form a considered opinion in a particular case. You do not have to be a grammarian, indeed you do not need to have studied linguistics, in order to know how to form or recognise perfectly grammatical sentences. Similarly, unusual and complex cases aside, you do not need to be articulate about eþics in order to utter judgment where judgment is due. But neiþer should you roam þe virtual countryside to seek out targets for your judgment.



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Teaching ethics and Character

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Principles, Exceptions and Judgement
The uses and abuses of moral rules

A set of reminders

Regularly the call goes out for a return to principles and obedience to moral rules. But such appeals miss the point in more than one way.

1. There is no one principle that will do the job, and, as soon as there are two or three principles and ten or twenty moral rules, problems arise as to their hierarchy and proper spheres. Separate rules are needed on how to interpret whichever worthy principle is being advocated, and ranking rules in order to know how to handle conflicts between different moral principles or rules. Formulating or even just counting the rules rapidly becomes too technical and cumbersome to be able to offer people in the turmoil of life any serious guidance. (And ethics cannot be the preserve of ethicists and logicians.)

2. There is interminable disagreement about what principles or rules to adopt.

3. Individuals need to know why they should keep to any principles or rules and whether if at all they can make exceptions.

4. If generally we all kept to the same principles and rules, human culture as we know it would disappear. We would live parallel, identical lives, since there would be no room for individuality.

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