What are ethics and what do they mean today?

By Marcus Andries, June 2016

Be it on the road, in politics, in journalism, in the economy or even in the courts, people seem to be increasingly talking about a loss of morals. At the same time our society is pushing for stronger ethics: there’s a demand for ethical business, management, banking... In many diverse contexts, ethics commissions are experiencing an unprecedented boom.

Photo: © CL. /photocase.de

A change in values

Postmodernism with its pluralism and the increasing segmentation and individualisation of society (“anything goes!”) adds fuel to the fire of those arguing that there is currently a decay of morals. As a result, a lot of people are beginning to ask themselves if a decay of morals is an inherent part of individualisation. But perhaps we aren’t dealing with a decay but a necessary shift in our attitude to morality, as a part of the increasing modernisation of our society.

History demonstrates that morals and values are constantly shifting. Sometimes this happens suddenly at once, such as in the course of revolutions, but mostly this occurs slowly and incrementally, a semi evolution, to the extent that most people affected do not notice it happening. For the following generations, these shifts then appear to be self-evident.

Ethics as a concept, its aspiration and scope

Ethics is not the same as morals. In contrast to morals, it is rather the lived morality of a society or culture at a higher level: it is the reflection on morals and as a sub-discipline of philosophy is also referred to as moral philosophy. So, on the one hand, ethics involves morals, where morals refer to the rules governing the actions and values that have been judged as being good and correct by a person or a society. Ethics, in this sense, refers to an academic discipline, focusing on systematically generating, reviewing and justifying moral principles and normative statements (reflection being one of the main principles of academic study).

However, on the other hand, the term “ethics” is also connected with a more solid conception of moral principles (self-contained constructs of thinking). For example, we refer to “Kantian ethics” or “Utilitarian ethics”. Ethics as an academic discipline  and construct is theory-oriented, in contrast to morality, which is action-oriented. Actions which are taken following a set of principles in accordance with a defined set of ethics lead to morally correct conduct according to these ethics in relationship to their premises and priorities in respect of certain values.

Philosophical ethics tries to find systematic and rationally argued answers to the question “What actions should be taken?” (social ethics) or “What actions should I take?” (personal ethics).

In addition to a theory of moral standards, ethics also comprises the concept of a successful, happy life. As long as it does not involve simple, descriptive ethics, but rather prescriptive, normative ethics, which is what we understand as actual moral philosophy, ethics aspires to develop generally valid grounds, in the best case even universally applicable principles, for the morally correct action of people.

The normative character of ethics is expressed in the statues of its statements: the latter can range from the simple advice found in Aristotelian ethics to the absolute imperatives found in Kantian deontology.

Two fundamental terms encountered when treating ethics as an academic discipline are “value” and “norm”. Values, in this sense, are taken to mean material or ideational goods, something that should be protected such as human life or the truth. In contrast to this, norms are instructions for action, taking the imperative “Thou shalt... !” form, specifying how to act in terms of the respective good. For example, in the case of a norm such as “Thou shalt not kill!”, the underlying value is human life, i.e. that it should be preserved. The underlying value of the norm “Thou shalt not lie!” is the truth which, according to the rule, should always be spoken.

Every ethical norm is based on one or more values. A system of norms is based on an underlying value system, which is always organised hierarchically. Values are always consciously or unconsciously prioritised (at the latest when action has to be taken), resulting in one superior value at the top of the value system. Take for example the German constitution, which places human dignity above all other values, a value based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant to which all other values (such as freedom and self-expression) are subservient. A superior value could however be human happiness, for example.

In contrast to legal norms, compliance with which is enforced with the threat of sanctions, the obligation to keep to ethical norms arises through voluntary agreement which requires an understanding of the reasoned grounds for these obligations. When this is not the case, it becomes an obligation due to reasons of convention or custom. In addition to this, it is always invariably the case that ethical norms can only obtain validity through the prevailing law of a society.

In Germany, the constitution forms this framework to which the emphatic acknowledgement of inalienable, universal human rights belongs in top position. Within these boundaries, ethical discourse can take place from which moral action can develop.  At the same time, it is often the case in open and democratic societies that the generally prevailing moral ideas gradually becomes a part of the prevailing system of laws, and that the law therefore becomes a mirror of the lived morality of a society.

Even values anchored in the German constitution can, with a few exceptions, be amended with a two thirds majority in the lower and upper houses of parliament and thus document a sometimes profound shift in values.

Ethics in practice

Every time that the slices of a finite “pie” have to be distributed, it comes down to a conflict of interests. Varying positions compete with each other on the basis of disparate value systems and hierarchies, as well as on the basis of varying, asserted norms.  This is where ethics comes into play, most commonly in the form of ethics commissions which can offer expertise to the various clients. Their job in situations like these is to develop rational and fair criteria to decide the distribution of the material goods (resources) or ideational goods (laws) concerned. In such conflicts, especially when involving particular interests (individual citizens) or common interests (society), compensation for imposed disadvantages or damages has to be defined, while simultaneously meeting ethical criteria. The following steps belong to a systematic, ethical case analysis: 1. an analysis of the situation, 2. an analysis of interests, 3. an analysis of values and norms, 4.  balancing competing interests and an ethical judgement.

The relationship between ethics and religion

In contrast to religion, ethics does not base its tenets for action on a background of a superior authority or entity (God, conscience), the framework of revelation or epiphany (religious texts) or tradition (exegesis). The sole criterion for the persuasive power of ethical principles and arguments lies in human reason in moral philosophy. This was already the aspiration of Socrates, which whom western moral philosophy started, when he called for the exclusive use of the Logos for guidance.

Immanuel Kant designated reason as the “last touchstone of truth” and understood, as a part enlightened thinking for oneself, that this touchstone had to be found within oneself. In the modern world, the thrust of this argument can be understood as formulated by Jürgen Habermas: rationality in discourse free of domination develops as the “particular unconstrained constraint of the better argument”.  

Ethics sees itself as far as possible free of preconditions and ideologically neutral and, in this respect, as a universally human endeavour; we have to qualify this statement with “as far as possible” because ethics is not absolutely free of preconditions. The obligation of rationality as a methodological requirement of ethics occupies the position of a postulate, whether we call it the postulate of reason with Kant, or of the Enlightenment.

Besides the postulate of reason there is also on an additional by-way of ethics the so-called  postulate of the ethics of feeling. However, the postulate of reason takes a more important position to the extent that a society without compulsory norms, that is rational principles, has not yet functioned and because the Enlightenment postulate constitutes the postulate that can claim the most inter-personal and inter-cultural validity.

Just as in religion, ethics can also be based on “belief”. In ethics the “tenets of belief” take the form of postulates.  However, since ethics aspires to be an academic discipline, there is a requirement to remove the pure statement of faith from beliefs by seeking to establish them through solid argument. This form of “belief” in philosophy was called “rational belief” by Kant.

Ethics in school

The dimension of reasoning is intrinsic to philosophy and, as a result, also to ethics. This then leads to the central goals and skills that should be taught in ethics classes in schools: in addition to ethical perception, above all the capability to make an argument and power of judgement. Students need to be able to recognise ethical conflicts, determine exactly what they are comprised of and which interests and values are affected. Ethical judgement is then demanded in the situationally appropriate evaluation of the values and norms concerned. 

The subject of ethics by its nature means that pupils cannot simply be instructed in values or made morally competent. Educating pupils in one specific moral direction is prohibited if only because of the teacher’s obligation to neutrality and the indoctrination prohibition. Furthermore, expecting a moral education from a single subject would simply be unrealistic. It is generally accepted that this can only be successfully achieved through the impact of the pupil’s entire moral environment.

However, such a view of what can be offered by ethics classes carries a risk: there is no guarantee that pupils will necessarily become morally better people due to ethics classes – ethics classes uncompromisingly show that moral education can only ever mean self-education. Moral education can only ever develop through a free, inner impetus. This assumes a trusting approach by the teacher.

In this respect ethics as secular humanism means the experience of freedom. Every student has to gradually give themselves and their lives meaning through their own efforts, although this can be done with the cautious support of their teacher. It is the necessary price of freedom.

A plea for secular ethics classes for all

In public debates, increasingly more attention is rightly directed towards the ethical aspects of social problems, where the main problems that we face today are not of an economic, but rather a social and moral nature. The neo-liberal dream has faded: the self-regulating power of the invisible hand of the free market, asserted to be working for the common good, cannot be relied upon.

However, ethics decreed from on high by the state has also always led to oppression and/or catastrophe. We only have to think of the racist national-socialist ethics of the Third Reich, the “ideal” socialist ethics of Mao Zedong, which led to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or the Wahhabi, Islamic fundamentalist ethics of Saudi Arabia and Islamic State. Ethics of this kind, which show such anti-humanistic and radically dogmatic traits, as well as opposition to human rights, are generally described as ideologies although they fulfil the definition of “ethics” as a closed conceptual construct of moral principles.

In the future, civil society will have to work on a new set of ethics from the bottom up, for which Rudolf Steiner’s ethical individualism (The Philosophy of Freedom, GA 4) can offer a perspective for the individual.

The requirement for this is, however, a much stronger ethical awareness and a more distinct ethical power of judgement in all members of society, but especially in the coming generation who will form our future.

Furthermore, there is in many instances a lack of a well-founded ethical education. In the light of this, it seems clear to me that the demand is well-justified that all pupils, including those taking classes in religious education, should have the opportunity in school in an ideologically neutral subject of “ethics” to think intensively about questions of moral action in a systematic way.

This requires leisure and interdisciplinary thinking in context.

About the Author: Dr. Marcus Andries teaches philosophy, ethics, mathematics and climbing at Haigerloch Secondary School (Baden-Württemberg). In addition he lecture on philosophy and ethics at the State Seminar for Didactics und Teacher Training (Secondary School) in Rottweil.