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No. 48, November 2003

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A case against equating ethics and morality

by Jerry Chris
Mission Viejo High School, California, USA

"Moral" and "ethical" are often used synonymously, but the term "ethical" derives from the ethical theories that comprise the field of Ethics. In this piece Jerry Chris argues that mentioning certain ethical theories in TOK might enrich the student experience.

First scenario: A perfect Boy Scout decides suddenly that he wants to do something out of character… something totally wrong. He prepares a rotten egg and fires it across the street at Mrs M's house, with the sole intention of making a mess and chipping the paint on the innocent old lady's front door. Just as the egg is about to hit, a robber steps out and the egg cold cocks him between the eyes. Down goes the robber with all of Mrs M's fine silverware in his bag. The next day, the paper announces, "Eagle Scout Saves the Day!" The question: was the Scout's action ethical? When I present this scenario at TOK trainings or at other teacher workshops, 90% of the participants quickly respond, "Of course not. His intention was to do harm." Unfortunately, this quick response reflects a definite naiveté regarding the field of Ethics.

Second scenario: My buddy and I are playing golf. We stand on the tee of a four par and have the choice of going around a lake--as the hole is intended--or attempting to drive 240 yards over the lake for the chance at a possible eagle or sure birdie, but also with the possible consequence of losing two strokes to the water. The question: does the decision have anything to do with ethics? Yes! Sadly, many TOK teachers don't realize this and miss all the fun of teaching ethics. They remove the controversy!

One more question: can a "moral" action be "unethical"? Definitely! Let's explore these answers in more depth, and let the fun begin!

When the ancient philosophers first offered ethical theories, they did so in an attempt to answer two basic questions: what is the good life, and how does man find happiness? Philosophers from Confucius to Aristotle to John Stuart Mill to William David Ross have written extensive answers to these questions. They set out to establish, in theory, codes or principles of behavior they believed could best lead humankind to ultimate happiness. Being philosophers, they realized that ethics was not a simple matter of an action being right or wrong as is commonly misconceived today, because not all peoples or cultures could ever agree on one code guided by one set of values. In fact, they would most probably cringe if someone were to use the term ethical as a synonym for moral or good, or the term unethical to denote immoral or bad. (If these words were synonymous, we would go to a favorite restaurant to eat an ethical hamburger.) And I imagine, despite their own egos, they also knew that their ethical systems would forever be challenged by other proposed systems. For purposes of this essay, then, I will define "ethical studies" as an analytical attempt at applying classical theories on how humankind ought to behave to modern day situations, in order to live what each philosopher considered "the good life."

Perhaps we should make it clear from the beginning that the purpose of this writing is not to debate the original intent of the authors of the TOK Subject Guide or to suggest, because of the way Ethics is often taught today, that they might have been shortsighted. Rather, in the spirit of internationalism and the TOK attitude of studying issues from a variety of viewpoints, my purpose is to suggest that the study of Ethics, in its original, philosophical intent--whether we choose to use philosophers' names or not--be used as a vehicle for the broadening of our understanding of the Ways of Knowing and the Areas of Knowledge.

Let us return first to the scenario of the Boy Scout. Yes, his intention was to do something wrong. (Note that terms such as wrong will be used throughout this writing, but not as a synonym for ethics.) However, the consequence of his throwing the egg was good. Immanuel Kant and other rule-based philosophers would proclaim that ethics depends solely on the intention. On the other hand, J.S. Mill, and his fellow consequence-based thinkers, would suggest that since the measurement of intention is totally subjective, even by the doer, we can only measure an action by the consequences. (Does a parent read each night to his or her child so that the child will grow into a brilliant IB Diploma candidate, or because the parent wants to brag to the neighbors that the child is an A student?) Mill's purpose was to make ethics completely objective. If you are thinking that this is too logical, you are correct. How can the doer foresee all the consequences before making a decision? A strong TOK student should make this observation. So, should we judge an action according to intention or consequence? The TOK class, hopefully, will never reach agreement about this first question.

Okay, you say, that scenario has to do with right and wrong--morality, if you want. What could the golf story possibly have to do with ethics? Aristotle's theory was that the good life depends on moderation. In fact, he laid out a clear, empirical formula for determining the moderate position. The virtuous life, Aristotle claimed, could never be achieved by actions at either end of the spectrum. Instead, each individual finds the formula for happiness through a pseudo-scientific process of trial and error which ends somewhere in the middle ground. In opposition, one might place hedonistic thinking. At least in modern times, most equate Hedonism (although extremism was certainly not Epicurus's intent) with the extreme philosophy that pleasure is the highest good, a philosophy often pursued by our teenage students.

So how is the golf decision ethical or unethical? Simple. Attempting to drive the ball over the lake, a difficult task that will result in pain more often than not, represents an extreme lifestyle. On the other hand, settling for par by going around the lake represents the sensible, moderate way to live. Aristotle would suggest that no one except Tiger Woods should attempt the over-the-lake shot. Students will react to our second question, "should we act moderately in order to live the good life?", in a variety of ways. "Wouldn't life be boring if we all acted moderately all the time? Wouldn't this philosophy result in mediocrity for all?" Further discussion about the golf example might also lead to further queries: might the decision be different if others are involved (e.g. whoever wins the golf game takes the loser's family home, or the game involves other team members)? Someone might also suggest that maturity involves knowing when to take risks (during a friendly golf game) and when to be moderate (investing retirement funds).

Adding the dynamic of having others involved in a decision leads into a third ethical debate: common good vs. egoism. Recently on a field trip to an art museum and play in Hollywood, three members of my class snuck off to buy some food after a long bus ride. Throughout the year we had taught the class that individuals' actions on these trips affect the whole class, because we represent our school in public. In spite of our instructions, the three did sneak off, and were unfortunately soon embroiled in a misunderstanding in the restaurant. Weeks later, after the dust settled, the administration disallowed the entire class from taking future field trips, which are usually a highlight of the senior year.

We would probably agree that the action of the three students was wrong because they disobeyed the rules. However, in the classical sense, Plato would suggest that the three acted immorally because they disregarded the common good in favor of their own egos. (In The Republic, he went so far as to suggest that teachers give up their own children in order to have complete dedication to the state.) The opposite viewpoint might best be represented by Spinoza, who saw primary virtue flowing directly from satisfaction of the ego: progress is made for society when an individual looks to his own needs. Where would the technological world be if Bill Gates were not interested in making money for himself? (One could certainly question how the world profited from the students having gone to the restaurant, but the point is that both the common good and the ego must be evaluated when determining the ethics of an action.)

In this regard, we make decisions every week that we might not realize involve ethical issues. Often, on Saturday nights, my wife and I must decide on what movie to spend US$8 each. To me, spending US$16 on an overly sappy love story is a complete waste: in a few weeks it will be available on video. So, should I satisfy my ego and drag her to a TOK worthy movie, or should I ensure the "happy family" by enduring Meg Ryan for two hours? Obviously, I'm going to follow Plato--for the common good--not Spinoza!

Many teachers at my school, when word of our field trip prohibition leaked out, suggested that it was inevitable. The class of 2003 was "full of rotten apples." This incident was just one more in a long chain of unfortunate happenings, in sum, we were fated for disaster. Ah, another issue in classical ethics that brings us to a fourth question: in order to find happiness and to live the good life, should we accept our fate or attempt to change fate? Classical Stoicism, founded by Zeno and furthered by Epictetus, states that virtue lies in accepting the cards dealt to us. Whether we win or lose the football game is predetermined; no amount of preparation will change the outcome. Therefore, displays of joy or pain are ill-founded (hence the current use of the word stoical). So, whether Mary accepts Fred's non-preferred invitation to the prom, or holds out for Bill, is an ethical decision. The true stoic would propose that it will all work out the way it was intended. Maybe she will say yes to Fred and make him happy; then he will get too sick to go, and she will be left with Bill, the object of her true affections. An interesting note here is that in my high school TOK class, most students charge that we must create our own fate; that is the only way to get ahead in life. However, in my college philosophy class, many more students have adopted a stoical attitude, perhaps having gone through several "true loves," experienced some hard times which somehow worked themselves out, or given themselves over to the religious belief that everything happens for a purpose.

Just as students' lives change, many would argue that times and cultures change, and that therefore absolutes are not possible. This brings us to a fifth debate on the subject of ethics: are ethics absolute or relative? Once upon a time, when I was in high school, teachers walked between us with rulers at dances to make sure we maintained the proper distance. If we were ever lucky enough to dance cheek to cheek when a teacher turned her back, we might not wash that side of the face for a week. When Elvis became popular, we were asked in church to take an oath that we would not watch his immoral gyrations. Fast forward to 2003. The most popular dance in Southern California high schools might be "the freak"--an all-out attempt to imitate intercourse on the dance floor (the real thing being prevented only by the clothes required at all public school dances, but nonetheless enhanced if the female reveals that she is not wearing undergarments). The students' justification is a simple one (and probably what we said when caught dancing cheek to cheek thirty-five years ago): "Everybody is doing it." It's the "normal" thing to do. Morals are relative.

The search for absolutes provides excellent discussion for a TOK class. How about the Ten Commandments? Number four says to "Keep holy the Sabbath" and implies a day of rest to honor God. Relevant today? One would be hard pressed to find one IB Diploma candidate at my school who does not do homework on his/her "Sabbath." How about the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?" In the spirit of internationalism, we may want to reject this rule; what is good or right or preferable for us in the United States (democracy? wealth?), may not be preferable for someone from another culture. (Unfortunately, many current world leaders did not take TOK.)

Hence our TOK course might have come full circle. Just as it might have begun with a debate over the objective or relative nature of truth, now we find that Ethics deserves the same intensity of discussion.

Thus, clearly, Ethics is not a simple case of right and wrong. Every Area of Knowledge is subject to ethical questioning. Ought cloning for individual body parts be allowed in order to save lives, despite the possibility that some futuristic Hitler might want to clone a perfect race? Ought the mathematician misuse statistics to influence investors, and thereby help the economy? Ought the historian write history to preserve the ethnocentric righteousness of the nation? Classical philosophers could easily state that a yes answer to these three questions is the ethical answer.

This leads to a final, perplexing question. Can an action be "moral" but unethical, or vice versa? Yes. Consider the Pope in the Vatican. No matter our religious beliefs, we could accept the premise that the Pope is a spiritual leader who is in the position to make moral decisions for humankind. However, his stand on the immorality of birth control other than the rhythm method influences the sexual practices of Catholics around the world. Now, if we also accept the premise that overpopulation is the root of many problems (e.g. smog, deforestation, pollution) in predominately Catholic countries such as Mexico, we can quickly conclude that with the criterion of common good, the Pope's decree is unethical! His moral stand leads directly to the problems of overpopulation.

Finally, it is also the case that "immoral" actions can be ethical. In the past decade, performance enhancing drugs for sports have grown in popularity in the U.S. Many such drugs can be obtained without a medical prescription by anyone, from the professional athlete to the body-building high school student. However, many people would readily label the use of any such drugs as "immoral," because they provide unfair athletic advantage to those who take them, or because they are harmful to their health. Let us suppose that despite warnings, a famous athlete takes these stimulants and then dies on the field, in front of thousands of fans. Because of this terrible event, millions of high school athletes stop taking these drugs. The consequence-based philosophers would conclude, looking objectively, that since the good results outweigh the bad (many high school athletes quitting drugs vs. one tragedy), the professional's drug taking was "ethical." His action has resulted in the greatest good for the greatest number. (Obviously, when many ethical theories were advanced hundreds of years ago, the world was a much simpler place.)

Again, the purpose of this essay is not to discredit the modern equivalence of ethics and morality. This trend is both understandable and undefeatable--probably the product of the natural evolution of language with culture (a TOK linking question!). It is also not to suggest that there is a right and a wrong way to teach ethics. Indeed, a non-philosophical approach to TOK is sometimes preferred. However, I would submit that in the spirit of TOK with its integral demand for examining questions from multiple viewpoints, the "ethics equals morality" equation seems somewhat myopic. From my perspective, TOK should be provocative, dynamic, and open-minded. Discussing the issues of the modern world with classical ethics as a base offers a wonderful opportunity to reach these objectives, and it can easily be done without ever mentioning a philosopher's name if that is the teacher's bent. I fear that a danger exists: limiting ethics to "morality" can limit the TOK unit on Ethics to the particular teacher's or country's morality, with that relative value system seeming to represent the absolute. With a focus on international understanding, a TOK class deserves a much broader perspective.


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