Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 E - Ethics

Ethics: Theory of what one should and should not do, of what are good and bad, and what ends are desirable.

As defined, it should be noted to start with, ethics differs from morals, that tends to concern standards for behavior and practices in a social group rather than the intellectual foundations of such standards, or abstract questions about good and bad.

1. Five general remarks about ethics: Since much in ethics depends on the ends one desires to further, and on one's theory of human nature, it makes sense to make five general points:

  • I try to look upon ethics and morals rather in terms of harming and hurting or misery and suffering than in terms of more noble and more abstract motives, since what harms or hurts a human being is fairly evident, regardless of what one thinks human beings are or should be capable of, whereas the worst atrocities have been committed in the name of the noblest ends.
  • I note the fact that ethical and moral judgmens tend to include both a factual component (about what the facts are supposed to be) and a subjective component (about what someone desires that the facts should be like), and that at least as far as the - presumed or asserted - facts are concerned that
             "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone,
                 to believe anything upon insufficient evidence
              (Clifford's dictum).
  • And I hold that
               it always makes sense to try to be rational and reasonable

    - since being rational in theorizing helps one find true or probable ideas, and without these one cannot hope to succeed in anything, and trying to be  reasonable in acting at least helps to give everyone his due - and also note that both are quite difficult to do well and consistently.
  • Since ethics is mostly about ends, the means to further these ends, if any, are essential, and I note that most ethical theories do not give clear plans and proposals about how the proposed ends could be realized from the situation one is in.

  • A considerable part of both ethics and morals can be derived from the needs  to cooperate if one wants to achieve anything; to come to agreements  about facts, ends, assumptions and methods if one wants to cooperate; and to keep promises if one makes agreements to do things.

2. On ethics and religion: There is a notion that religion, though it has been shown to be remarkably ineffective, false and misleading in matters of science (no Holy Book of any religion, directly divinely inspired or not, yields a percentage of a percentage of the natural knowledge science discovered the last 400 years), is and should be a foundation or inspiration for ethical, moral and other values.

I do not deny that it is a fact that priests, clergy, and churches tend to meddle a lot in moral matters and tend to pretend that they are specially qualified to do so, for example because professional sellers of religion like priests and clergy suppose themselves to have some divinely given and inspired task in the field of ethics.

This seems a fundamental mistake to me, especially for two reasons.

The first is that I have no religious faith, and so lack any personal reason to believe the pretensions of some priests or clergy, while I have enough historical knowledge to know that religions have inspired many conflicts, wars and persecutions, since most religions tend to preach something like 'love thy neighbour like thy self' explicitly, but tend to qualify this in practice by a more tacit 'provided he is of the same faith (and color, and language, and state)'.

The second is that, regardless of the religion human beings have, they all do live in one and the same reality, in which they can cooperate only if they can come to agreements about how to cooperate and what ends to cooperate for. And all of this can be done very well, in so far as human beings can do this, without any discussion of or reference to religious beliefs, and merely based on what every human being can know about what every other human being will feel in many circumstances and will need in general to feel tolerably well.


See also: Agreement, Cooperation, Evil, Logic of Moral Discourse, Morals, Promises, Society,


Aristotle, Broad, Edwards, Hume, Mill, Russell, Sidgwick

 Original: Sep 16, 2004                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top