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