GeoffLamberton Ethically Speaking

Lets have a look at rational ethical principles

Over the past two years weve discussed many different ethical issues in this column drawing on two major schools of ethical thought. In most cases weve utilised the consequential school of ethics, estimating expected consequences of a particular action where the ethical act is the one that leads to the best consequences, often referred to as the greatest good for the greatest number.

The second school of ethical thought is Aristotles virtue ethics where we ask the question what are the attributes of a truly virtuous person? The ethical act is one which leads us towards being that virtuous person.

There is a third major school of ethical thought referred to as duty ethics, developed by the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant believed morality was determined by the process of reason and logical thought and it was each persons duty to do what they knew to be right. Kant used this logical process to derive a fundamental ethical principle an act is immoral unless the rule that would authorise it is universally applicable to everyone.

Many people prefer Kants approach to ethics. Expected consequences and virtues are difficult to identify and subjective in nature, providing a flexible moral system lacking in predictability. Kants duty ethics however provides underlying principles which can be used to develop a set of ethical rules to be followed in all but exceptional cases, providing clear structure and stability.

Ethical rules are commonly derived with reference to religious scripture such as The Ten Commandments. Many of the rules identified by these commandments are also found in ethical codes developed within Islamic, Buddhist and Judaist traditions.

Ethical rules can also be derived using the human process of reason. Louis Pojman, a well known US ethicist, provides 10 ethical rules derived using Kants universal logic. These are intended as universal rules essential for us to comply with if we are to flourish as a community. These rules are:

1. Do not lie.

2. Keep your promises.

3. Do not murder.

4. Respect other peoples freedom.

5. Do not steal or cheat.

6. Help other people, especially when the cost to oneself is minimal

7. Act justly, treating people according to their merit (not their race or ethnic group except where it is morally relevant).

8. Do not cause unnecessary suffering.

9. Reciprocate good for good, not evil for good.

10. Obey just laws.

Could you comply with these rules all of the time? Are there any rules that you dont agree with? If we all complied with these 10 rules all of the time, would the world be a better place?

Keep in mind this is one of three major approaches to ethics. I find many students at the beginning of their studies believe this is what ethics is all about rigid, obvious rules, and as they sometimes tell me, this is why they dont need to study ethics because they already know the rules!

Over the coming weeks we will draw on Pojmans list of 10 ethical rules to see if this is a useful method for solving ethical problems.

Geoff is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at SouthernCross University.


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