Sunday, April 5, 2015

The philosophy of ethics

A few years ago, I read an article exploring human attitudes to ethics. The study worked by exploring some imaginary scenarios, which I've listed below. As you read them, you might like to consider what you think is an ethical response:
  1. A train is rolling along a track. Up ahead, you see a person unconscious on the track. The train cannot stop in time, but you have the power to divert the train to another track and save the person on the track. Should you?
  2. A train is rolling along a track. Up ahead, you see four people unconscious on the track. The train cannot stop in time, but you have the power to divert the train to another track which has only one unconscious person on it. You will save the four people, but the single person will die. Should you?
If you think that both these scenarios represent a clear yes (in other words, we should work to ensure the minimum number of people dying), then consider this scenario
  • A healthy person has arrived in town. You are a doctor and know that there are four people in town who are dying of organ failure (of different organs). You can kill the new person, harvest their organs and use them to cure the dying people (thus saving four people at the expense of one life). Should you?
I think most people would object to this. It represents extreme utilitarianism -- the idea that decisions should be made based on some dispassionate assessment of utility or greatest good to the greatest number, leading to a dictatorship by the majority.

What is interesting about these scenarios is they are life/death situations. People are going to die -- it is just a matter of determining how many people, and which people. Consider this scenario:
  • Life involves a lot of hard work which you would rather not do.You have the power to kidnap your neighbour and force them to work for you for nothing. Because you will not take care of them the way you would yourself or an employee, you will then have a more comfortable life.
This seems pretty clearly wrong, however it is interesting to note that this practice (called slavery) was around for many centuries. Even when people began making ethical arguments against it, it took many decades for the practice to stop. Also note that the benefits conferred to slaveholders were
not saving their life (it was not a life/death choice like the above train scenarios) -- it was merely an economic benefit that basically amounted to stealing wealth [1] from the slaves for the benefit of slaveholders.

Despite slavery clearly being optional (ie. not life/death), and pretty clearly ethically wrong, it still took decades of campaigning for it to be outlawed. In the US, it took a major war to finish it completely. 

Here is a different scenario, that encapsulates this, and also one new concept:
  • A town enjoys its wealth and prestige, but still contains an underclass. The original source of the town's wealth (mined minerals) is drying up, so the town proposes to sell options in future slavery to an adjacent town to maintain its wealth. It will work like this: the town will hold a lottery. Buyers of tickets will have a chance at owning the grandchild of sellers of tickets (and thus obtain the economic benefit that being a slaveholder brings). All current recipients of welfare in the town must enter an agreement that they are tacitly a seller of a ticket. In other words, the town is selling a random portion of the underclass's grandchildren as slaves to support their economy.
 Let's think about the aspects of this scenario:
  • It is non-essential, but maintains a standard of living: it is utilitarian, but not regarding a life/death situation
  • It occurs far in the future
  • There is a probabalistic element -- one can't say ahead of time who's grandchildren will be affected and by how much (ie. who their owner will be and what the social climate will be)
What do you think of this scenario? To me, it's pretty clearly unethical. I suspect that most people would agree with me.

However, I also believe it pretty accurately summarises the environmental problems (eg. global warming, resource depletion, ecological collapse) that we face: someone is going to pay for our recklessness. We don't exactly know who, and we don't exactly know how much (though the price seems to be increasing year-on-year). We do know that the costs with which we burden them are non essential to us (they're not life/death), but merely make our lives more comfortable.

[1] Think as follows: The slavers benefit from the slaves because they pay them less than they would need to pay hired hands to do the same work. That difference (lost wages and conditions) between the slaves and hypothetical hired hands is essentially stolen value that the slaves earned but weren't paid.

This article was written by Angus Wallace and first appeared at


  1. This is exactly how I feel about buying pretty much anything. Or even living in our society. The wealth that we enjoy is very much based on the misery of a population of people far away whose underpaid labour we use, whose environment we degrade with mining or pollution from pesticides or factory runoff, or whose ill health or deaths we cause from similar issues. Or the wars we start, perpetuate or fund for access to resources they have which we want. We wouldn't put up with any of this in our own community, but because we can't see it, we find it easier to pretend it doesn't really matter..

  2. Hi Jo,

    I don't think there's much point being too hard on ourselves, either individually or as a society. What's done is done, as the saying goes. The point of this post is not to criticise but to raise awareness. We can only do what we can do.

    Cheers, Angus

  3. Hi Angus,

    Moral philosophy is perhaps not my area, because I sort of see people saying one thing and then going and doing something else entirely. It is a tough school.

    It is very stressful, I believe, for people to enjoy the privileges and perks that Kings 500 years ago would not have been able to enjoy and then say to themselves I am both a moral and ethical person, yet they then can dump a whole lot bleach down the drain or spray their entire garden with herbicides or pesticides without a further thought - or how about purchase stuff made in a sweat shop in South East Asia just for a few examples. Man, I dunno really, but I believe they call that condition cognitive dissonance? I saw that blindness with the whole water debate on the ADR last week.

    It is both the future and parts of the present that we are all stealing from. What a tough topic.

    Cheers. Chris

  4. Hi Chris,

    Every person who thinks about ethics or morality is a hypocrite, which really just means that they fail to meet their ideals. To be honest, I don't see this as a bad thing -- it is good to strive to be better than we are. In terms of saying one thing and doing another, that's probably still preferable to just denying the existence of a problem altogether!

    Your point is good though -- it is not just the future we are stealing from. I guess this post falls into the "all models are wrong, but some are useful" category (I hope! ;-)

    Cheers, Angus

  5. Yes, but mostly, I have noticed, people say, 'We can only do what we can do' then proceed to do exactly nothing except business as usual. Not pointing the finger - clearly you are trying very hard to do everything you can to live according to your ethics. Yes, we will all fail to live perfectly ethically, but I think we need to do some kind of psychic violence to ourselves, be quite hard on ourselves, because otherwise we won't change..

    I am not saying I am depressed all the time about the state of the world - I am a pretty cheerful person, and I love life - but sometimes I do have to wallow in the sheer wrongness of our society, because if I didn't, I would never do anything about it..

  6. Hi Angus,

    Excatly: "all models are wrong, but some are useful" category. Very well put, I wasn't even aware of that category! ;-)!

    Cheers. Chris


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