What is the difference between ethics, morality and the law?

The world around us is a smorgasbord of beliefs, claims, rules and norms about how we should live and behave.

It’s important to tease this jumble of ethical pressures apart so we can put them in their proper place. Otherwise, it can be hard to know what to do when some of these requirements contradict others. Let’s talk about three different categories of demands on how we should live: ethics, morality and law.


Virtue ethics

What makes something right or wrong?

One of the oldest ways of answering this question comes from the Ancient Greeks. They defined good actions as ones that reveal us to be of excellent character.

What matters is whether our choices display virtues like courage, loyalty, or wisdom. Importantly, virtue ethics also holds that our actions shape our character. The more times we choose to be honest, the more likely we are to be honest in future situations – and when the stakes are high.


Deontology

What makes something right or wrong?

One answer comes from the work of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is considered the founder of an ethical theory called deontology. Deontology comes from the Greek word deon, meaning duty. It holds, quite simply, that actions are good or bad based on whether they fulfil universal moral duties.


Consequentialism

For lots of people, what makes a decision right or wrong depends on the outcome of that decision.

Does it increase or decrease the amount of happiness in the world? This kind of thinking is typical of consequentialism: an ethical school of thought that says what makes an action good or bad is, you guessed it, the consequences.


Purpose, values, principles: An ethics framework

An ethics framework is a statement of an organisation’s purpose, values and principles.

It makes clear what they believe in and what standards they’ll uphold. It’s a roadmap to good decision making and, if it’s lived throughout the organisation. It’s also a guide to making an organisation the best version of itself.

Trying to make a decision without knowing your purpose, values and principles, is like being at sea without a rudder. They’ll be pushed around by the winds of our desires, mood, unconscious mind, group dynamics and social norms. The choices they make won’t really be their own.


What is ethics?

Ethics asks how we should live, what choices we should make and what makes our lives worth living.

It helps us define the conditions of a good choice and then figure out which of all the options available to us is the best one. Ethics is the process of questioning, discovering and defending our values, principles and purpose. It’s about finding out who we are and staying true to that in the face of temptations, challenges and uncertainty. It’s not always fun and it’s hardly ever easy, but if we commit to it, we set ourselves up to make decisions we can stand by, building a life that’s truly our own and a future we want to be a part of.


Israel or Palestine: Do you have to pick a side?

We are inclined to pick a side in complex conflicts, but doing so can diminish our ethical point of view.

In the early hours of 7 October 2023, Hamas launched a barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israel while armed terrorists crossed the border and began a rampage of death and destruction targeting civilians, including children. In the days that followed, Israeli forces retaliated by blockading Gaza, cutting off food, electricity and water supplies, and began bombarding the densely populated city, killing thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children. 

When our news screens are filled with footage of such horrors, our moral minds cry out for justice. But justice for whom?  

One of the quirks of our moral minds is that we tend to see the world in terms of black and white or good and evil. If we hear about a heinous or unjust act, our sympathies go out to the victims while outrage inspires us to want the perpetrators to be punished. This sorts the world into two categories: the wronged, who deserve sympathy and protection, and the wrongdoers, who are morally diminished or even dehumanised.  

Another quirk of our moral minds is that we struggle with ambivalence, which is the ability to see something as being both good and bad at the same time. Once someone – or a group – are painted as the wronged, it’s difficult to also perceive them simultaneously as being wrongdoers in some other capacity. Attempting to do so creates an uncomfortable state of dissonance, and the easiest way to resolve it is to dismiss the troubling thought and collapse things back into black and white. 

On top of this we have our personal connections and affiliations, or a sense of shared identity that can cause us to feel solidarity with one side rather than the other. This in-group solidarity is then reinforced through shared expressions of grief and outrage. It is also policed, with any signs of sympathy for the “other side” drawing stiff rebuke. 

This is all natural. It’s how our moral minds are wired. So, it’s no surprise that in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, many people have already picked a side. But just because it’s a natural inclination doesn’t mean it’s always a healthy one. 

Picking a side can shrink our view, making us see the world through that side’s ethical lens and dismissing other possibly valid perspectives.

This is particularly apparent when we’re faced with gaps in the information we receive – as we often are during times of conflict. We tend to fill ambiguity with our own biases, and we seek out information to reinforce our view while discounting evidence to the contrary.  

Picking sides can also prevent us from seeing the bigger ethical picture. And in the case of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the bigger picture is a long history laced with ethical complexities. 

However, there is another way. It requires us to acknowledge, but not necessarily follow, our moral intuitions, and instead step back to take a more universal ethical point of view. This is not the same as a neutrality that is indifferent to the claims of either side or to questions of right and wrong. It is taking the side of principle, which is a basis by which we can judge all parties.  

Justice for all

Most ethical frameworks offered by philosophers are universalist, in the sense that they apply equally to all morally worthwhile individuals in similar situations. So, if you believe that it’s wrong to kill a particular individual because they’re an innocent civilian, then you should also believe that it’s wrong to kill any individual who is an innocent civilian. 

You might justify that in consequentialist terms, such as by arguing that killing innocent civilians causes undue and irrevocable harm, and that the world is a better place when civilians are protected from such harm. You could equally justify it using a rights-based ethics, such as by arguing that all people have a fundamental right to life and safety.  

While philosophers have a variety of views on which specific ethical framework or universal principles we ought to adopt, there are some principles that are widely accepted, with many being coded into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include things like a right to life, liberty and security of person, a right to freedom of movement within the borders of one’s state, and that people shall not be arbitrarily deprived of property, as well as a right to the free expression of one’s religion.  

The virtue of taking such a principled approach is that is gives us a bedrock upon which we can base our judgements of any action, agent or government. It promotes a sympathetic stance towards all suffering, and aims us towards justice for all, without shying away from condemning that which is harmful or unjust.

It might challenge our partisan feelings that favour the interests of one side over the other, but it urges us to condemn wrongdoing on any side, such attacks targeting civilians or waging war without ethical constraint. 

A principled perspective also enables us to navigate complex ethical issues, such as saying that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land might be unjust, but that it shouldn’t justify Hamas attacking civilians. Or that Hamas’s attacking civilians is clearly morally repugnant, but that shouldn’t justify the collective punishment of Gazans by Israel. And it can allow us to assert that Israel might have a right to defend its territory and citizens from attack, but it – indeed, all parties – must adhere to just war principles, such as proportionality and distinguishing between enemy combatants and civilians. And it ought to reinforce our commitment to seeing a lasting peace in the region, which will inevitably require some compromises on both sides.  

Of course, even if everyone agreed on the same set of principles, there will still be substantial differences in interpretation or points of view. A principled stance must also acknowledge that there are fundamental incompatibilities between the interests and demands of both sides that no single ethical framework will be able to resolve without some kind of compromise. For example, when both sides claim certain sites as sacred, and demand exclusivity, there is no way to resolve that without compromise that will be deemed unacceptable to at least one side. However, such uncertainties and complexities don’t undermine the fact that the same universal principles ought to apply to all people involved. 

Choosing to side with ethical principle rather than one side or the other is not without its challenges. It forces us to push back on some of our deep moral intuitions and sit with ambivalence and ambiguity. We might be admonished by both sides in the conflict for not backing all their claims, or called a traitor for criticising them. However, the strength is that we can respond to each of these challenges by resorting to the universal principles, compassion and desire for justice that underpins our views on both sides of the conflict. 

While the internet and media landscape seem to urge us to take sides in any conflict, it is entirely possible – and often wise – to step back and apply a broader set of principles rather than fall in with a particular partisan perspective. Adopting such a principled stance doesn’t require that you have all the solutions to the conflict, it is sufficient that you have good reason to wish for a just and peaceful solution for all involved. 

 

Image: AAP Photo / Erik S. Lesser


Big Thinker: Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a philosopher, economist, and revolutionary thinker whose criticisms of capitalism and breakdowns of class struggle continue to influence contemporary thought about economic inequality and the worth of individual labour. 

He was not only a prominent figure in the world of philosophy but also a key player in economic and political theory. Marx’s life and work were deeply intertwined with the tumultuous historical backdrop of the 19th century, marked by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism. 

Born in Trier, Prussia (now in Germany), Marx began with a focus on law and philosophy at the University of Bonn and later at the University of Berlin. During his time in Berlin, he encountered the ideas of G.W.F. Hegel, whose methods significantly influenced Marx’s own philosophical approach.  

In collaboration with Friedrich Engels, Marx developed and refined his ideas, culminating in some of the most influential works in the history of political philosophy. For example, his infamous The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894). 

Historical materialism and class struggle

One of Marx’s central ideas was historical materialism, a theory that analyses the evolution of societies through the lens of economic systems. According to Marx, the structure of a society is primarily determined by its mode of production: the ways commodities and services are produced and distributed, and the social relations that affect these functions. In capitalist societies, the means of production are privately owned, leading to a class-based social structure separating the owners and the workers. 

Marx’s analysis of class struggle underscores the ethical imperative of addressing economic inequality. He argued that under capitalism, the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) exploit the proletariat (the working class) for their own profit. This exploitation, he claims, is the engine that drives the capitalist system, where workers are paid less than the value of their labour while the bourgeoisie reap the profits. This exploitation also results in alienation, where workers are estranged from the full effects of their labour and, Marx argues, even from their own humanity. 

Marx’s arguments call for a reevaluation of the inherent fairness of such a system. He questions the morality of a society where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few while the masses toil in poverty. This is an ethical challenge that continues to resonate in contemporary discussions about income inequality and social justice.  

Marx’s critique challenges us to consider whether a society that values profit and efficiency over the well-being and fulfillment of its members is ethically justifiable.

To address this concern, Marx envisioned a classless society, where the means of production would be collectively owned. This transition, he believed, would eliminate the inherent exploitation of capitalism and lead to a more just and equitable society. While the practical realisation of this vision has proven challenging, it remains a foundational ethical ideal for some, emphasising the need to confront economic disparities for the sake of human dignity and fairness. 

Critique of capitalism and commodification

Marx’s critique of capitalism extended beyond its class divisions. He also examined the profound impact of capitalism on human relationships and the commodification of virtually everything, including labour, under this system. For Marx, capitalism reduced individuals to mere commodities, bought and sold in the labour market.  

Marx’s critique of commodification highlights the importance of valuing individuals beyond their economic contributions. He argued that in a capitalist society, individuals are often reduced to their economic worth, which can erode their sense of self-worth and dignity. Addressing this ethical concern calls for recognising the intrinsic value of every person and fostering functions in societies that prioritise human well-being over profit. 

The communist vision

Marx’s ultimate vision was communism, a classless society where resources would be shared collectively. In such a society, the state as we know it would wither away, and individuals would contribute to the common good according to their abilities and receive according to their needs. 

This communist vision raises questions about the ethics of property and ownership. It challenges us to rethink the distribution of resources in society and consider alternative models that prioritise equity and communal well-being. While achieving a truly communist society might be complex or even out of reach, the aspiration of creating a world where everyone’s needs are met and individuals contribute to the best of their abilities is still a general ethical ideal many people intuitively strive for. 

Despite this, Marx’s ideas have faced much criticism. Many believe that a classless society with a centralised power risks authoritarianism, Marx’s economic planning lacked detail, communism goes against human nature of self-interest and competition, and historical and contemporary communist systems face large practical challenges. 

In spite of, and sometimes because of, these challenges, Marx’s ideas continue to spark ethical discussions about economic inequality, commodification, and the nature of human relationships in contemporary society. His legacy serves as a reminder of the enduring importance of grappling with questions of justice, equality, and human dignity in our ever-evolving social and economic landscapes. 


Would you kill one to save five? How ethical dilemmas strengthen our moral muscle

Ethical dilemmas are, by their nature, uncomfortable or difficult to tackle, but they can also teach us a lot about our own values and principles and prepare us for an ethically complex world.

You’re about to take a major exam that will determine whether you get accepted into a potentially life-changing course. But you hear that there’s a leaked copy of the exam paper doing the rounds, and other students are studying it carefully. There are only a precious few spots available in your desired course, and if you don’t also sneak a peek at the leaked exam paper, you are likely to miss out. Should you cheat by looking at the leaked exam paper, given you know other students are doing the same? 

How about if you found out that the company you work for was partnering with an overseas contractor known for running sweatshops and flouting labour laws, meanwhile your company’s branding is all about how ethical and sustainable it is. Would you speak out to management, or on social media, even if doing so might cost you your job and income? 

If these scenarios give you pause, you’re not alone. Each represents a different kind of ethical dilemma we might come across, and by their nature they can be highly unsettling and difficult – if not impossible – to resolve in a way that satisfies everyone involved.  

But what makes something an ethical dilemma? It’s important to note that an ethical dilemma is not a simple question of doing the right thing or the wrong thing, like whether you should lie to cover up for something bad that you did.

A genuine ethical dilemma arises when there is a clash between two values (i.e., what you think is good) or principles (i.e., the rules you follow). Or it can be a choice between two bad outcomes, like knowing that whatever you do, someone will get hurt.

That’s what makes them so uncomfortable; we feel like whatever choice we make will involve some kind of compromise.

All in the mind

One way to prepare yourself to face real-world ethical dilemmas is to strengthen your moral muscle by practicing on hypothetical scenarios – a staple of philosophy classes. 

Consider this: you’re the captain of a sinking ship, and the lifeboat only has room for five passengers. Yet there are seven people aboard the ship, including yourself. Whom do you choose to board the lifeboat? The pregnant woman? The ageing brain surgeon? The fit young fisherman? The teenage twins? The reformed criminal who is now a priest? Yourself? 

Or how about this: you’ve just started your shift as the only surgeon in a small but high-tech hospital. As you walk into your ward, you’re presented with five dying patients. You know nothing else about their personal details except that each is suffering from a different organ failure. Without assistance, all will die within 24 hours. However, at that moment, a healthy patient is wheeled in for an unrelated minor procedure. You also know nothing about their personal circumstances, but you do know they have five perfectly healthy organs. Were you to allow that patient to die (as they will without treatment) you know you could save the lives of the other five dying patients. Would you allow one to die to save five? 

Each of these scenarios is carefully constructed to put pressure on your ethical intuitions and force you to make difficult decisions.

Tackling a hypothetical dilemma gives you an opportunity to reflect on your own values and principles, and search for good reasons to justify your choices.

Even if the hypothetical situation is absurdly unreal, you can still learn a lot about yourself and your ethical stance by considering how you would act in these cases.  

Your first impulse might be to try and change the circumstances to eliminate or minimise the dilemma. We might speculate that we could squeeze another person on the lifeboat, or that the organ transplants may not succeed, and that might make our decisions easier. This is entirely natural – and sensible – especially because dilemmas in the real world are rarely as clear cut. But dodging the dilemma misses the point of the exercise. 

You might decide that a consequentialist approach is the best one for the lifeboat scenario, causing you to pick the people who might end up leading the richest lives or having the most positive impact on others. But you might decide that a deontological approach is most appropriate for the surgeon’s dilemma, arguing that it’s inherently wrong to withhold treatment from an innocent patient, even if it ends up saving lives.  

It’s important to remember that hypothetical dilemmas like this are designed so that there’s likely no simple answer that will satisfy everybody. Even reasonable people can disagree about what course of action to take. That’s fine. The important bit is not really the answer you come to but the reasons you give to support it. That’s what ethics is all about: finding good reasons to act the way we do. 

Most of us are likely to go through life without ever having to put people in lifeboats or contemplate the death of one to save five, but by testing ourselves with these dilemmas we can build our ethical muscles and be more ready to face other dilemmas that world could throw at us at any time. 

 

If you’re struggling with a real-life ethical dilemma, it can be tough finding the best path forward. Ethi-call is a free independent helpline offering decision-making support from trained ethics counsellors. Book a call today.


You’re the Voice: It’s our responsibility to vote wisely

The Voice referendum is a high stakes decision that could affect many thousands of lives, and that means we have an ethical responsibility to choose how we vote carefully.

Not all decisions are created equal. Some are trivial in their consequences, like whether you choose the chocolate or strawberry ice cream for dessert. Some have higher stakes, like whether you decide to prioritise your career over travelling the world. Yet, these decisions still only affect how you live and are unlikely to impact anyone else. 

You can make these decisions in a considered or a flippant way. Or you can choose to not make them at all (although doing so is still making a choice, of sorts). With low stakes personal decisions, you don’t even need to have a good reason for choosing what you do. The only person to whom you owe a justification is yourself – and you can always choose to free yourself of that burden. 

But there are other kinds of decisions, ones that impact not just us but other people too. Decisions like these demand more from us and we cannot be so flippant with them. In these cases, we have a greater ethical responsibility to come to a more considered position, to weigh up the options more carefully, and be ready to justify our decision with good reasons. 

This is the type of decision are we making when it comes to the Voice to Parliament referendum. 

The stakes

In the case of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, the stakes are whether Indigenous peoples are afforded constitutional protection for a consultatory body that will advise government on legislation affecting their communities – a body that cannot be legislated away with a change of government. 

Leading Indigenous figures representing peoples from across Australia and the Torres Strait have asked the Australian people to make the constitutional change because they believe such a consultatory body will have a significant impact on the wellbeing of their peoples and will help correct over two centuries of political disempowerment and discrimination.  

Be a good citizen

So, you have a decision to make, one that will likely have a significant impact on a vulnerable population. That places an ethical responsibility on each registered voter to take the decision seriously. This means not treating it flippantly and having a principled reason for voting, regardless of which way you vote. This is what it means to be a “good citizen”. 

It’s easy to think of citizenship as simply affording us rights, such a right to have a say in how we’re governed or a right to be treated fairly under the law. However, citizenship also bestows upon us responsibilities, like voting in elections and serving on a jury if called.  

But these are just the minimal responsibilities involved in citizenship. We need to do more to be a “good citizen”, including keeping ourselves engaged in issues of public significance and maintaining a basic level of political literacy. A good citizen also doesn’t just grumble about the state of society, they act to make it better. Finally, a good citizen sees themselves as members of an interconnected society, and is willing to make sacrifices or compromise for the common good. So, a good citizen will see the Voice referendum as an opportunity to exercise their responsibilities and engage with the issue actively to make an informed decision. 

Be informed

The good news is that there is an abundance of information readily available for each of us to come to a principled decision. However, there is also a wealth of misinformation and disinformation floating around as well. Some of this is shared due to genuine confusion and some is spread by bad faith actors who have their own motivations for attempting to sway votes.  

Explore what you really think

This is why it’s important to look at who is speaking and understand their motivations, which might not always be reflected in their arguments. Many people are motivated to vote one way or the other simply because that’s how their perceived political allies are voting, or they might be swayed by unconscious biases and use plausible sounding arguments as post-hoc rationalisations for how they feel deep down.

You can tell that someone is pushing post-hoc rationalisations when you successfully challenge their argument, such as by showing they have been duped by misinformation, but they still don’t change their mind. In this case, simply throwing more facts at them is unlikely to sway them. 

A more successful approach is to be sceptical that the first reasons they give are the true motivations for their views. Instead, ask more questions about why they believe what they do and what they’re concerned will happen if the vote doesn’t go their way. Ask questions about how they can be confident their facts are true or what it would take to change their mind.  

Rather than positioning yourself as an opponent, try taking the stance as a fellow traveller trying to get to the bottom of the matter. If you’re able to show respect, build trust and lower defensiveness, you’ll have a better chance of opening their mind to alternative perspectives – although it’s also crucial to remain open to alternate perspectives yourself. 

There is no right answer

This is because there is no one “right answer” to the referendum question. Reasonable people can disagree on whether a Voice to Parliament is the best mechanism to promote the welfare and representation of Indigenous peoples, or whether a Voice ought to be enshrined in the constitution. When discussing the issue with others, it’s easy to assume that people who disagree with us must harbour some problematic views or that they are simply misguided. Resist that urge and ask questions that aim to tease out good reasons for or against the Voice. 

The stakes involved in the Voice referendum mean that we should all take our responsibility to vote in a considered way seriously, and we should be mindful of how we make our decision. Even though there are many pressing issues facing the Australian public, from the cost of living through to climate change, that doesn’t mean we can’t also engage with the longstanding issue of Indigenous disadvantage, especially because there’s often not much we can do about many big issues but we’ve been explicitly invited to have a say on the Voice. 

 

For everything you need to know about the Voice to Parliament visit here.