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To put it simply:

Each of these do not stand alone and what we think in one area affects what we think in another, but here we will focus on some main areas of Ethics with examples from the history of philosophy.


In common speech if we use the world 'ethical' we often mean that it is 'good' or that it is what we should do - eg: "Trade which pays workers fairly and doesn't destroy the environment is ethical trade." or "The doctor showed me her patient records. That's unethical". When we say 'ethical' in philosophy we usually mean that it is something considered as a question of ethics, or within the topic of ethics, not necessarily that it is 'good' or 'bad'. Eg: whether doctors should share patient data is an ethical question.

A simple but important definition to keep in mind is that moral statements relate to the way things should be, rather than to the way things are. Eg: "Mary should feed the cat." as opposed to "Mary does not feed the cat." Morality then depends on:

The terms 'subject' and 'object' are used in many different and confusing ways, requiring their own page to explain.

Introductions to Ethics usually describe 3 ways of looking at ethics:

Dharma, roughly translates to 'justice' in English but with several connotations and within an Indian social context. It is a broad term that means the right course of action in specific situations, the laws or principles that we should abide by, and a kind of cosmic harmony where the state of things should be in accord with Dharma. Social roles and categories are important in Indian culture and Dharma may be different depending on your particular role in society. This is really not too different to any other society. For example, a warrior should not avoid a fight, especially if they go around bragging about what a great warrior they are - we would call them a coward. On the other hand, a monk should avoid a fight. If we see a monk who has been preaching about peace and turning the other cheek, getting into a brawl, we'd call them unholy. At least we'd call each of these people hypocrits because they are not abiding by social expectations of the role they have taken on, and which they profess as their own law. The specific actions of Dharma are different for different people.

In many cases Dharma in the sense of 'law' is quite obvious and accepted everyone, such as "You shouldn't kill your friends, family or guru." If there is a game of dice, there should be no cheating and the loser should hand over what they've lost. According to social convention the kingdom should be inherited by the first born. One of the things about the Mahabharata that makes it such a brilliant drama, so expressive of the human condition is how complex specific circumstances in the real world can throw this apparently simple and easy to understand morals into question. The first born son is blind and so hands the kingdom to his brother who later dies so that the blind son none the less becomes king. A first born son takes a vow of celibacy. One mother gets pregnant before another but has a long pregnancy such that the other gives birth first. Who should inherit the kingdom? If a man loses first his younger brothers, then himself in a game of dice, and then stakes his wife, was she really his to lose if he had already lost himself? A warrior should fight alongside his brothers, yet he should not kill his cousins and his guru on the other side. The point is the changing situations of the real world cannot be accounted for by simple and general rules. The problem of ethics that we have as humans is to find a path through all these problems.

More than this, Dharma works on a personal level. If Dharma depends on who you are we can look at the case of the individual, who may perform many roles but exists independently of those roles as a specific and unique individual. We all face this question, beyond this or that role which we perform, 'Who am I?' In the Mahabharata, before the battle commences, Arjuna, perhaps the greatest of all the warriors must launch the great battle but seeing his friends, family and gurus on the other side has a moment of doubt and cannot go through with it. Fortunately, he has the god Krshna for his charioteer who sits him down and explains things to him. This forms the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important and most translated books of Indian philosophy. In it Krshna points out to Arjuna that it is impossible to abstain from action. Although detachment from the world is good, and it is good not to be controlled and to suffer from desire, anger and so on, withdrawing from the world is still an action. Choosing not to act is itself an action. To think you can avoid action is misguided. Detachment then means going about your actions, in accord with Dharma. Detachment is an attitude to take as you go about your actions, in accord with Dharma. It enables you to be still and calm amidst chaos, and better choose the right course of action, to do what must be done in accord with your role. Beyond the specifics of one's role in society (for Arjuna this means launching and carrying out the war as a proper warrior), there is one's self. Being in accord with Dharma also means carrying out those actions that accord with being who you are.

It is a long way around to arrive at the conclusion that what we should do is be who we are. But without having made that journey to arrive back where we began - who we are - we would not be able to be who we are with detachment. This is not a trivial thing. I remember how difficult it was as a youth to figure out who I was, let alone be who I was. How frustrating it was when people said, 'Just be yourself'. "How can I *act* like myself?" I wondered. Now I have had some practice I'm better at it but there are still times it is difficult.

(The more I look at it, the more parallels appear between Indian and Ancient Greek philosophy. This view of ethics - being who you are, is similar to Aristotle's virtue ethics, where he describes the 'virtue' of a knife is cutting well. To be virtuous means being good at our purpose - for humans there are various virtues, things to be good at, but at the bottom of it, it comes down to being good at being who we are.)

"And since happiness is a certain way of being at work in accordance with complete virtue, something one would have to examine would be virtue, for perhaps in this way we might get a better insight into happiness... And since happiness is a certain way of being at work in accordance with complete virtue, something one would have to examine would be virtue, for perhaps in this way we might get a better insight into happiness... And it is clear that one ought to examine virtue of a human sort, since we were looking for the human good and a human happiness, and by human excellence we mean the kind that belongs not to the body but to the soul, and we assert that happiness is a being-at-work of the soul... Now since virtue is of two sorts, one pertaining to thinking and the other to character, excellence of thinking is for the most part, both in its coming to be and it is growth, a result of teaching, for which reason it has need of experience and time, while excellence of character comes into being as a consequence of habit... we become just by doing things that are just, temperate by doing things that are temperate and courageous by doing things that are courageous... First then, one must recognize this, that things such as virtues are of such a nature as to be destroyed by deficiency and by excess, as we see... Someone who runs away from and fears everything and endures nothing becomes a coward, while someone who fears nothing at all but goes out to confront everything becomes rash; similarly, someone who indulges in every pleasure and refrains from none becomes spoiled, while someone who shuns them all, like a boorish bumpkin, becomes in a certain way insensible. So temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and by deficiency, but are preserved by an intermediate condition."

For Aristotle, ethics and morality is based on the possession of virtues. The basis of this is happiness - in one regard being virtuous causes happiness, but what happiness means is 'being-at-work' in some virtuous activity. We are happy when we are engaged in some virtuous activity - being courageous for example. The virtues are something we learn and become habituated to through practice. The more we practice virtues the easier it is to be virtuous. In this way we become people of good character - meaning that we are good, highly skilled, at doing good. Virtues are a balance between two extremes which then become vices. Table of Aristotelian virtues and vices.

Confucius lived during the Warring States period (475–221 BC) in China and his philosophy is still accepted by the state today. That was a very fruitful period for philosophy because the great difficulties of life presented by ongoing war meant there was a great questioning and desire to understand how an individual should best live and how to establish a stable state. In short - if life is difficult we want to learn how to live. Because of war much philosophy was political, how to win and obtain loyalty and how to sustain peace. The Confucian approach is based on everyone acting virtuously. For Confucius, a tyrannical approach, rule by fear, leads to rebellion and disloyalty. At the same time, crime and the disloyalty of the people leads to state weakness and collapse which is bad for everybody. Obedience and moral action cannot be forced out of people. Instead everybody must recognise that their own welfare depends on the good functioning of the whole of society, and this depends on each person acting virtuously - not out of fear of punishment but because it is the right thing to do. Everyone has their role to play - a peasant must work hard and produce food and an emperor must be just and benevolent, a soldier must fight honorably and an official must not be corrupt. Although his philosophy is for everyone, Confucius focuses his guidelines for behaviour on gentlemen, the class of people who will be administrators. Confucius places great emphasis on 'filial piety' which means to honour one's parents, to always look after them and be obedient to them. Most of the Analects provides guidance and examples of what virtues a noble person should have, as in the following from the last chapter:

Zi Zhang asked, “What are the five points of excellence?” The Master said, “The Noble Man is generous without being wasteful, works hard without resentment, desires without being avaricious, is proud without being arrogant, strict without being severe.” Zi Zhang said, “What does it mean, to be generous without being wasteful?” The Master said, “If you see a way to bring benefit to the common people and you carry it out, is this not being generous without being wasteful? If you select the matters where it is appropriate to work and have people work hard at them, who will be resentful? If you desire Goodness and attain it, where will there be greed? Whether dealing with the many or the few, the young or the old, the Noble Man does not dare to be conceited. Is this not indeed the meaning of being proud but not being arrogant? The Noble Man, straightening his robe and cap, is respectful in his gaze; he is severe in the gazes of the people, yet is in awe of them. Is this not the meaning of being strict without being severe?”

Analects, Confucius

One criticism of Confucius, from Mozi (c.470–c.391BC) is that love is given to different people in different amounts according to their status or relationship to you. Such as placing duty and care for one's parents above all others. Mozi argued for 'universal love'. This applies at a personal and a state level. He argues that in all cases we should act not to harm or defeat anyone but always to wish them well and help them. He provides the example of a king who is generous to everyone, regardless of whose side they are on. Wouldn't this be the best way to gain the loyalty of all the people over rival kings? Good will to all results in good will returned, we make mutual benefactors instead of enemies. Mozi says the best way to serve one's parents is to be generous to other people's parents. They will naturally be generous to ours.

A more general criticism of virtue ethics is that the particular virtues that are thought to be good are culturally relative, and may even vary from individual to individual.

After Plato Classical philosophy branched into many schools of thought in Greece and Rome such as Academic philosophy which carried on adherence to and development of Plato, and Skeptics who attempted by argument to demonstrate any assertion could not be accepted as truth. Romans typically looked to Greece and Greeks for their education but developed these schools of thought, sending wealthy children to Greece to study and hiring Greek tutors, to prepare them for public life. In Rome in particular, where survival and advantage, and sometimes life and death, depended on politics and social maneuvering, the question of philosophy tended to be more about the right way to go about living, rather than abstract problems of metaphysics. Some schools of thought, relevant to this discussion of Ethics are:

Cynics (dogs)

Want nothing but what nature provides.

The word 'cynical' in English today means having no confidence that things will turn out well, having no belief in any ideals and generally being negative. The meaning has changed somewhat and is similar to the ancient school of philosophy only in the way a cynical person social expectations and ideals.

For Cynics living in poverty and having contempt for wealth and status meant freedom and happiness. For Cynics unhappiness and constraint was caused by all the illusions of money and expected behavior in society. Their behavior was often shocking and insulting to society, as they lived according to any desire, like animals. Property and status means having something you are afraid to lose, and you become a slave to those things you thought would make you happy. Having no desire for wealth or power, not even a house, meant nobody could coerce them, and so they were free.

While Socrates criticised people, Cynics criticised by the example of how they lived.

The most famous Cynic was Diogenes, nick named 'The Dog', who lived in a large wine jar. There are many stories about his life, such as when Alexander the Great came to visit him and found him basking in the sun he offered to grant him anything, Diogenes replied, 'Get out of my sunlight.'


Cyrenaics were hedonists, living only for immediate pleasure. For Cyrenaics happiness equates to pleasure. If the point of action is to experience pleasure of some sort there is no point doing anything in the expectation of happiness that may never come. At every moment you should do whatever is most pleasurable. If there are social rules and constraints preventing you from enjoying pleasure they should be ignored as they do not themselves provide pleasure, or only provide a promise of pleasure that may never come.

Hegesias of Cyrene, Death Persuader

The premises of the Cyrenaic school lead to some wildly different philosophical positions. Hegesias is an obscure figure but was nicknamed 'Death Persuader' because his philosophy argued that our aim is to avoid suffering, but that life itself is inevitably full of suffering and desires can never be finally satisfied. He was perhaps influenced by Socrates' comment in Phaedo (see 'What Even Is Philosophy'). It's also believed he was influenced by Buddhist missionaries, and so his philosophy may be a strange re-interpretation of the Buddhist aim to avoid re-incarnation and the suffering of life by attaining Nirvana. His teaching was outlawed when people committed suicide as a result of it - an early suicide cult.

Epicureanism is a hedonistic philosophy that had a strong following in the Hellenistic Greek and Roman worlds. It was based on the pursuit of pleasure, but this doesn't mean the pursuit of brief sensual gratification. Firstly Epicurus makes the point that pleasure is the only natural measure of the 'good' that we have. Attainment of pleasure is the goal of living, and how to achieve this is the purpose of philosophy, so Epicurus provides guidance.

There is no need worry about death. When we are dead we will experience nothing, and while we are living we are not experiencing death. Death is not present to the living and the dead are not.

Of pleasures there are 'natural' and 'vain' pleasures. Of 'natural' pleasures there are necessary pleasures an those that aren't. Of necessary pleasures there are those needed for happiness, for bodily ease and for life itself. Vain pleasures are difficult to obtain and provide little and fleeting pleasure. The aim of life is the health of body and mind which means to live free of pain and fear. It is an important point that for Epicurus, pleasure is defined as freedom of pain and fear - what 'happiness' means is a not something we don't have and then get, but is a lack of pain and fear. Epicurus says that when we satisfy needs and get rid of pain and fear our pleasure is not added to but changed in quality. Eg: if we are no longer hungry another cake doesn't make us happy per se but we might continue eating merely to vary the quality of our pleasure.

We sometimes forego a particular pleasure and accept suffering for the sake of a greater pleasure, so no particular pleasure is inherently and always 'good', but it depends on the circumstances.

So what should we do? How should we live? Epicurus says 'prudence' or living 'nobley' and 'justly', being able to choose well, is the greatest wisdom. The greatest pleasure goes to those who have only bread and water when they are hungry. We should live frugally attending to only the most 'natural' needs. Seeking great wealth causes too much suffering for a small amount of ephemeral pleasure. Becoming accustomed to simple living we won't suffer much from deprivation and we will enjoy luxuries all the more when they come along by luck, and without having suffered for them. We can endure difficulties by remembering pleasures past and anticipating pleasures in the future. Above all what gives most pleasure in life is good friends.

You cannot control everything, but you can control yourself. If you always do the right thing you will have nothing to regret. Care about what's right here and now. Liberated from fear, to do the right thing, to meet moral obligations. Virtue is enough. Although a long way from Stoics, Yudhishtra puts the Stoic attitude well when he says, "In a world overrun by violence, lies, deceit and corruption, the only way I can be sure justice has not completely vanished from the world is if I myself am just."

Stoics drew a lot of lessons on how to live from contemplating death. Their view was similar to Epicureanism in that we should not worry about death because there is nothing at all when we die, neither suffering nor pleasure. What matters is living well. Death reminds us that life is short and we must take every opportunity to live well. This means doing the right thing while we live, even it if means we will be killed since death is unavoidable.

Seneca points out a flaw in Aristotelian reasoning on virtues. It doesn't make sense to strike a balance between anger and lack of spirit, or depression. What it means to be angry is to lose control of yourself. This is always a bad thing, or not virtuous. If something happens we should take action in response to it in a cool and reasonable way. The risk of acting in an angry state is that, because we are not acting rationally, weighing things up to choose the best possible action we are likely to choose the wrong action. We need to use our judgment and take action based on this judgment. Seneca acknowledges a response to this is that anger is sometimes an appropriate response and can drive us to extract justice - if we become angry at someone beating up an innocent person, and using that anger to punish them. Seneca's case becomes quite subtle at this point. He acknowledges that our emotions are caused not only be events but by our judgment of them. We become sad or angry because we have judged an event to be wrong, or some kind of injustice. If we are emotional it's not merely that we have lost control in response to an event, but because we have already made our judgment of it. In that case, isn't our emotional response the appropriate action according to our judgment? For Seneca, no. The point is that the action in response to the judgment be a reasonable one, which cannot occur when our excessive emotions have caused us to lose control. Having lost control we are likely to make an irrational mistake - perhaps our judgment was wrong, misinformed, perhaps our reaction will cause an even greater injustice, or perhaps it would simply be wiser to get justice at a later time. Therefor, self control, being cool and reasonable at all times is of great importance for stoics, regardless of how extreme the situation is.

Kant's philosophy is an example of deontology.

Kant makes a subtle argument for 'duty' as the principle of moral action, arriving his famous 'categorical imperative' to be used a moral guide when considering any action, 'I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will my maxim should become a universal law'.(p15) Here's is how he arrives at this imperative.

Kant seeks what is good in itself without recourse to anything else. Happiness may be caused by many different things, which may be good or bad depending on one thing or another. For Kant, the only thing that we can say is inherently good, in and of itself, always, without depending on anything else in order to be, is good will. Ie: the intention to do good. It is not good because it leads to some other good but is good in itself. A good outcome may turn out to be bad and various things happen, or good for one while bad for another. But whatever happens it cannot change the fact that the good will is good.

Kant draws a distinction between actions willed or done from inclination and actions done from duty. If it is from inclination it is only those things we would do anyway for our own satisfaction or happiness and so is not really a moral choice. It may be that the same action is understood as both by duty and inclination but it's only in so far as it is out of duty that it is morally good. If an action is done out of inclination it is only an accident that it might also conform with a duty. My own inclinations might often drive me away from a duty even though I know it to be 'good'. To explain what he means by a 'duty' Kant gives and example from Christianity, the command to 'love thy neighbour as thyself' even your enemies. This example demonstrates a situation where it is not something we would automatically will for ourselves precisely because it must include our enemies - it's a duty because we would not necessarily wish to do it unless it were some command or 'duty' or 'imperative'.

Next Kant considers what 'duty' could be universally applicable and not dependent on any particular circumstance. If a duty depended on circumstances it must be that it sometimes be wrong or bad and not always good. A duty that is always good, should always be adhered to. For Kant then we should only will what we could also wish be universally applicable.

Kant suggests that if you are considering lying and you apply this law, not wishing to be lied to yourself, you must not lie. What's more, any action may lead to endless unforeseeable consequences so to base our assessment on what might happen is uncertain. We should always be honest. It is precisely the fact that we should do this out of duty, even when we don't want to, rather than when it is convenient to us, that makes it an inherently good moral duty.

(One problem with this argument so far, is that we might make more and more detailed arguments about what should 'always' be done, eg: we should always lie if we intend the lie to prevent someone being killed when telling the truth would result in their death. With more and more qualifications on particulars there ceases to be much difference between any varied thing we might do under particular circumstances.) But Kant says that it doesn't make sense that these maxims should contradict each other. If there is a maxim that is universal there can be no qualification that contradicts it.

Kant arrives at this 'duty' that is applicable at all times to any rational creature: 'I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will my maxim should become a universal law'

Kant next asks what could be the 'end' or purpose of anything that I might universally will to be a universal law. He rules out 'happiness' because, as already demonstrated, that is what I would do anyway and so doesn't involve a choice. Also, it cannot be a means to an ends, something which I would get for some other purpose, such as happiness, simply because Kant wants to know what is inherently good in itself, for which anything else might be done. Again he is looking for universals - a universal purpose would be something we always aim for and for which any other purpose must be a means towards. Kant makes a distinction between subjective and objective ends. 'Subjective' ends such as 'happiness', and there is nothing wrong with happiness, are not 'moral' as they do not require 'duty' - a subjective end is for ourselves. An 'objective' would exist independently of me and my own satisfaction and purposes but would still be something I must rationally 'will' as purpose I aim toward out of duty.

Kant makes a distinction between 'things' which may be used as a means to an end, and 'persons', saying, "Now I say that the human being and in general every rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion; instead he must in all his actions, whether directed to himself or also to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an end."

This is the other most important principle of Kant's ethics. Treating others as an end in themselves is the maxim that we could will to be universally applicable as a duty and goes beyond satisfying my own purposes. He reaches the conclusion (before preceding on from 'Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals' to a 'Critique of Pure Reason'), "So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means." (p38)

Nietzsche's view, articulated well in one of his shorter works, The Genealogy Of Morals is that the morals we have today, regardless of whatever elaborate philosophical proofs or religious beliefs we have, are a result of historical circumstances. He describes a history of how morality has changed, in his bombastic, shouty tone. Many of his comments, often as poorly founded as many he criticises, none the less cut close to the bone.

"It seems clear to me that this theory looks in the wrong place for the real origin of the concept of 'good'. The judgment 'good' does not derive from those to whom 'goodness' is show! Rather, the 'good' themselves - that is, the noble, the powerful, the superior, and the high-minded - were the ones who felt themselves and their actions to be good - that is, as of the first rank - and posited them as such in contrast to everything low, low-minded, common, and plebeian." p12

"That lambs bear ill-will towards large birds of prey is hardly strange: but is in itself no reason to blame large birds of prey for making off with little lambs. And if the lambs say among themselves: 'These birds of prey are evil; and whoever is as little of a bird of prey as possible, indeed, rather the opposite, a lamb - should he not be said to be good?', then there can be no objection to setting up an ideal like this, even if the birds of prey might look down on it a little contemptuously and perhaps say to themselves: 'We bear them no ill-will at all, these good lambs - indeed, we love them: there is nothing tastier than a tender lamb.' To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a will to overcome, overthrow, dominate, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, makes as little sense as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength." p29

"No wonder that the downtrodden and surreptitiously smouldering emotions of revenge and hatred exploit this belief in their own interests and maintain no belief with greater intensity than that the strong may freely choose to be weak, and the bird of prey to be lamb - and so they win the right to bleame the bird of prey for simply being a bird of prey... If, out of the vindictive cunning of impotence, the oppressed, downtrodden, and violated tell themselves: "Let us be different from the evil, that is, good! And the good man is the one who refrains from violation, who harms no one, who attacks no one, who fails to retaliate, who leaves revent to God, who lives as we do in seclusion, who avoid all evil and above all asks little of life, as we do, the patient, the humble, the just.' When listened to coldly and without prejudice, this actually means nothing more than: 'We weak men are, after all, weak; it would be good if we refrained from doing anything for which we lack sufficient strength."p30

Nietzsche says that morals are different for 'masters' and 'slaves' and that historically for the masters good simply meant being good at things, all their abilities and accomplishments were 'good', such as being an excellent warrior, having good horses, etc. According to Nietzsche, slaves, manifested in slave's religions, Judaism and Christianity, made their weaknesses into virtues - if you are poor and cannot make money then make 'frugality' a virtue, if you are weak, then 'turn the other cheek' becomes a virtue, and so on. Morality is just like a case of 'sour grapes' (see Aesop's fable) where if we cannot have something we say we didn't want it anyway.

Nietzsche is often associated with Nazi's because they adopted much of his rhetoric to serve their political aims. However, it must be remembered that Nietzsche was as contemptuous of Christianity as he was of Judaism and his statements about Judaism are there in relation to its founding role in 'slave morality' which is carried on by Christianity. He explicitly states also his contempt for Anti-Semites, apparently viewing them as complete idiots. He holds greatest contempt for people who profess religion without really believing in it, merely as an expedient to keep people peaceful and under control. He would much prefer a zealot of any kind, so long as they are willing to do whatever it takes to realise their will to power. So, he might have admired Nazi leaders but would have contempt for their followers. He would equally have admired resistance fighters, militant suffragettes and people like Germaine Greer in the 70s.

Utilitarianism is typically given as an example of consequentialism, but in Mill's description it is an attempt to account also for 'virtue' and for 'deontological' concerns. It is an attempt at a synthesis, but based on the Epicurean ideal of happiness.

Utilitarianism builds on various developments in English philosophy and is closely related to the Industrial Revolution in England. Mill builds on Bentham's views of Utilitarianism, but the theory is also related to economic theory and the world 'utility' is used in economics and is still a fundamental concept taught in microeconomics today. In economics basically means the 'usefulness' or the measure of satisfaction or happiness to be derived from something by an individual and factoring into their decision making. In economics this 'usefulness', 'satisfaction', or 'happiness' is usually measured as the price they will pay. For example, prior to Mill, Adam Smith used term in his seminal book on economics, "The Wealth Of Nations":

"The word VALUE, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called 'value in use;' the other, 'value in exchange.' The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and, on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water; but it will purchase scarce any thing; scarce any thing can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it. The demand for those metals arises partly from their utility, and partly from their beauty. These qualities of utility, beauty, and scarcity, are the original foundation of the high price of those metals, or of the great quantity of other goods for which they can everywhere be exchanged."

The principle of Utilitarianism, or 'The Greatest Happiness Principle', simply stated is that we should perform those actions that lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Mill rejects Kant's approach early in his book 'Utilitarianism' by arguing that all that Kant was able to demonstrate was that if we followed his categorical imperative we would be forced to accept as moral, actions with consequences that anyone would regard as immoral.[p4] For example, if we accepted

Mill says that Utilitarianism is a hedonistic philosophy and like Epicureanism, the same arguments as used for Epicureanism can be used in its defence. For example, some accusers say it is a 'mean and groveling' philosophy 'fit for swine' because it suggests people should only satisfy their basic lustful pleasures. Mill points out it is the accusers who have a low opinion of humanity if they think that is the only way humans can find pleasure. Humans derive pleasure from all manner of high minded activities, intellectual pursuits, working productively, acts of generosity and so on. He distinguishes Utilitarianism from Epicureanism by the point that Utilitarianism aims actions at the greatest number of people not just one's own happiness.

He points out that Utilitarianism also doesn't rule out virtues and duty, merely that they can be explained by the principle of the greatest happiness. 'Noble action' ie: virtuous action, is how to achieve utility maximisation

The economist Jevon's built on Mill's ideas to develop the theory of Marginal Utility which is a core component of any Economics 101 course today - factoring into supply and demand the point that the additional 'utility' or happiness of obtaining an additional unit diminishes the more you have. For example, I might really want a chocolate, but after eating a few I want them less and less, to the point they make me sick and I don't want any more.

Economic theory governs much of what happens in our society from the most day to day events to national politics, so it's important to understand how philosophy, and the concept of utility has developed as a part of this. Although it may have been forgotten along the way, we should remember that the justification of modern Western economic policy is the maximisation of 'happiness', called 'utility' and measured in money. If economic policy doesn't maximise happiness we should therefor question it. Note happiness maximisation is radically individualised in current economic theory. The response of economists might be, if for you there is utility in helping others or cooperating or acting collectively, then fine, it will still be accounted for by the model because we only measure actions absolutely abstracted through money as a quantified representation of value, so all and any motive is accounted for.

Economist Amartya Sen argues that altruism changes economic models at a very basic level that is not accounted for in Neoclassical economics.

Existentialist philosophers focus less on abstract questions of epistemology and metaphysics and more on what means to be human in the world.

Among the experiences we have as humans being in the world, part of 'the human condition', is to agonise over moral dilemmas and to feel judged in the eyes of others.

Sartre makes the point that having freedom depends on non-being. We are in a situation where things are as they are, or 'being', so for us to be able to change them, we must be able to imagine things being not as they are, 'non-being'. Sometimes philosophy points out what was so obvious we didn't notice it, but this simple point forms the basis of a demonstration that our freedom can never be taken away from us (Sartre had been a prisoner of war), and that we always remain responsible for our own actions (this is significant in the context of the aftermath WWII and the 'Nuremburg defence' where soldiers claimed they were 'only following orders') and that we are always in a process of inventing ourselves, among other things. freedom

Levinas regards Ethics as 'first philosophy'. Normally epistemology is 1st because there is no point discussing anything unless we understand how it is possible to know anything or whether there is truth and what counts as truth at all. Levinas says that if we are alone, or if we were the only person in the world, there would be no question about what I should or shouldn't do, and there would be no question about what is or isn't truth. Everything would be assumed. If there is some fruit I eat it, if I want to sleep I sleep, if I see a rock it is a rock - no questions.

It is only when I meet another person that things are called into question. It's only then that someone else may tell me I am wrong about something. It is not until there is the possibility that I'm wrong when confronted with another person that I even think to question my beliefs at all. It is only in this ethical relation, a relation between people, that this occurs.

Levinas focuses on the 'face to face' relationship. When I encounter another person face to face I recognise that here is someone with thoughts and feelings, like mine but different to mine. They are not like other objects in the world that I merely use for my own purposes. They may also use things for their purposes. They might want to do other things with the world and in the world than I do. We can disagree. They can judge me. I can feel ashamed, or loved, and there may be violence in this encounter. For Levinas, 'violence' means denying the 'otherness' of the 'Other' and treating them as a thing, or object. This is similar to Kant's view that we should treat other people as an end in themselves, never as a means to an end, as if they were an object. If the other person is absent it can be too easy to assume we have them all figured out, that we know what they meant and what they will do, and we might pass judgment on them and their actions. If they are present, face to face, they can say, "No, that's not what I meant." they can defend themselves, or agree, or adjust, they can turn the table and start judging us. Even a prisoner in a court of law can judge the judge even if only with a look in their eye.j

While we may recognise they are like us in their ability to think, feel, act, and judge it is crucial that we can never know with finality what they think and feel and what their judgment is, we must always ask and even then, uncertainty remains and new questions arise. It is this that always throws things into doubt and raises questions of morality, what we should or shouldn't do, and what is even true (epistemology) or real (metaphysics). This all occurs and is negotiated through 'discourse' - having a conversation. In discourse we may act with kindness or violence. Note that all these philosophers have felt the need to communicate with us and tell us what they thought.

Importantly also Love presupposes this absolutely unknowable otherness of the Other. It is this otherness that causes desire, the desire to understand another person, to be loved in return, and to do good things for them. To put it simply, we cannot love another person unless we are already and always separate from them - we can't love unless we are alone.

(Levinas' Totality and Infinity is difficult to read. I read a whole chapter before I understood a single sentence. I recommend a course on Levinas if you have the opportunity to do one, or working with an explanatory text. But he is my favorite philosopher, because of how he brings all these abstract problems and analyses down to this here now - you and me talking. )

Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and Game Theory

These ideals are all very well, but the real world is full of corrupt and evil people trying to coerce, intimidate and so on. Even if you want to do good, you cannot unless you are as effective in the real world as those who wish to do bad. If you want good to win you need to know how to win against a ruthless opponent who is not hindered by the imperative to do good. Whether for good or ill, you need to know how to win, and to win you need effective strategy. This at least is Machiavellis' view in his political advice to Italian princes in the cutthroat world of city states jostling for power and factions vying for power within city states.

If you want to learn strategy Sun Tzu is a good place to start. Although it includes a lot of detail about logistics, one thing you learn is that logistics are crucial - whether an army fighting over a nation or whether you are an individual struggling to get through the day, you need to manage your energy, otherwise, using too much too early you might not have it when it matters. The right amount at the right time. Sun Tzu is popular among business people, so whether you want to succeed as in business strategy, or you want to defend yourself against ruthless business people, read Sun Tzu. It includes many other pithy bits of advice, such as when you are weak appear strong, when you are strong appear weak. Information or misinformation is crucial. Creating uncertainty is effective - eg: if someone wants to fight you in a pub, or wants to rob you in the street, somehow introducing uncertainty into their mind, sometimes simply by not acting the way they expect (laughing, pretending you didn't hear, putting one hand in your pocket and not taking it out, providing a rational argument in a calm and friendly manner like not wanting to go jail for murder, have all worked for me at various times) In the years before Trump, Russian military strategists were advocating media misinformation as strategy to defuse resistance, planning to regularly release contradictory government press releases - not knowing what was true or false, what the actual policy was, nobody could organise a resistance to it. Uncertainty leads opponents to hesitation instead of action, it leads them to divide their forces to cater for various possibilities.

Also look at game theory (eg: the prisoner's dilemma). This can be used as much for good. Eg: Your manager says there might be a promotion opportunity coming up for someone who performs well. A nice unsuspecting person might take this at face value, believing that good effort and producing results is rewarded. But consider the strategic benefit it provides for managers - all the workers work harder, so there is more productivity without any expenditure. The workers now all compete with each other to please the manager, rather than collaborating, reinforcing the managers power and undermining any resistance and insubordination. In time, when staff start to ask when the promotion will be available, the manager says, "sorry, due to budget constraints they can't afford the promotion." The promotion was a carrot on a stick. Even the nice person who does not choose to manipulate their way into more wealth and power benefits from trying to think strategically from time to time to avoid being made a donkey out of. (You might guess that the reason I'm teaching the importance of strategy is not because I'm the best strategist but because I've been made an ass out of too many times.)

Eg: there are various types of game scenarios. We have all heard of win-win. When you acquire even an introductory knowledge of these field, it is saddening to see how often people leap to assumption they are in a win-lose game and to get what they want, even it's only what they feel to be justice or fairness, thus must defeat their opponent. A basic knowledge of strategy and game theory though helps you deal with this, it helps you not merely to win, but to conciliate. It helps see and explain many alternative options and to satisfy all parties. At work it can help dismantle work politics and get everyone back to working to a common purpose. Strategy can help you see how you are being exploited. It can help convince your boss to implement a good idea. It can help you decide whether this is a fight that you should devote energy to, and so help reconcile you to difficult situations - to change them if you can, or accept them if you can't (relates back to Stoics). At the very least, this action of assessment and deciding, even if it is to remain in an unpleasant situation begins a reclamation of power and freedom because you understand the coercion, the game, and it is you who have made a decision about how to act in this situation. Cold comfort, but it is a beginning of a strategy - by saving your energy on that battle, you may plan the next. You can't work the system unless you know how the system works. If you don't work the system, the system works you. Some may see that as taking a ruthless path to wealth and fame but it can be any goal. For me the purpose of money is to obtain something else, so the minimum money for that something else, since money is so hard to get, seems enough (an Epicurean attitude). When I was young a book, a pot of pasta and a bottle of port each week was all I needed and wanted. What I want is to spend my time doing things worthwhile - either enjoyable or a contribution to the world. If money detracts from that it is not serving it's purpose. If I'm constrained by desperation such that I have to work in boring jobs that make no difference to anybody and I feel every moment of this all to short life dripping away, I need a better strategy (a Stoic attitude, see Seneca on the shortness of life). There is some good advice in the Pancatantra - we should not be slaves to money. This doesn't mean living the life of an ascetic, ignoring money altogether, nor does it mean a constant struggle to one day be so rich that money is no concern. Poor people suffer from lack of money, and to get and obtain riches means constant stress, worry and anxiety. Consider also, we are not wealthy if we can't afford to be generous - thus lower and higher income people seem happy if they are comfortable enough to be able to give some portion away - you're not rich if you can't afford to be generous (not profligate) (a virtuous attitude). If we don't want to worry about having money we need to have neither too little nor too much. It has taken many years, but here I am happily giving away free philosophy lectures.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned about strategy through reading Sun Tzu and Game Theory is not to confuse choice with freedom. The way people talk it seems a common conception is that having choices means having freedom. Some equate Capitalism with freedom saying it gives freedom of choice. Others make the joke that freedom doesn't mean having your choice of 15 different types of washing detergent. But that misses the point. If someone holds a gun to your head you have choices. Most people would describe someone holding a gun to their head as the opposite of freedom. The main point about power and freedom is not having choices but having control over what choices are available. Consider a game of chess, the exemplar of strategy. In chess you never kill the king. The object of the game is to reduce your opponents available moves until they cannot possibly make any move without being killed. Arriving at checkmate is a limitation of choices to only losing moves. The only choice for the opponent then surrender. Freedom and power are not simple things that can be taken away and possessed. We are always at any moment, in a situation where our possible courses of action are constrained to some extent or in one way or another. We are in a strategic situation, and, regardless of whether or not there is an opponent, to act strategically, to maximise our freedom and power, for good or ill intention, is to act in such away to increase the available choices, and to enhance our ability to determine what choices are available.

It is all very well to say you need to be clever and think strategically (to 'work smarter') but it is not as if understanding this or reading a book suddenly solves your problem. It is possible to be in a losing situation even without any individual or identifiable enemy, if your options are none the less limited to things that make you unhappy. It can take a long time (years), a lot of patience and a lot of hard work to figure out how the situation works, to figure out how to create new options, to work towards them, to be ready at the right moment for when a chance comes along. Although it is hard, we are unlikely to get out of a losing situation without a strategy.

ANT, AI and PostHumanism

Bruno Latour's Actor Network Theory looks at the 'agency' (the ability to do things) of non-human objects.

Haraway celebrates the blurring of boundaries between human, machine, organism and all binaries as way to reclaim the ability to define oneself and as a form of resistance to power.

Haraway critiques the idea that we are a 'mind' inhabiting a body, and the popular perception from Sci Fi that a mind might be copied from wetware to software. Haraway argues the physical implementation and embodiment is crucial in determining what our 'self' is.

In general, if the boundary between humans, bodies and machines is not so clear to us any more, particularly with the spectre of AI, then many of the founding concepts of ethics as a whole are called into question - much of ethics depends on the distinction between humans and 'things', between subject and object, between things which can be simply 'used' because they have not sentience and agency and humans who should be treated as ends in themselves.

Post-colonialism, negritude and subalterns

Beats, Hippies and Hipsters


Queer Theory


"Pre" means 'before' and "judice" comes from 'judging'. "Prejudice" means to judge before. Typically this means before knowing anything about a person, or all the relevant information that should be considered. We usually use this word to refer to a situation where someone is judged to be something, to have done something or is assumed to behave in a certain way and is treated accordingly because of who they appear to be according to the 'judgers' categories. For example in racism a person of a certain colour is assumed to behave according to a stereotypical description of people of that race.

Racism is sometimes supported by statistics or 'factual' information about people of a certain type, as a basis for treating an individual in a certain way. The ethical counter argument to this is that everyone must be treated as an individual. If some statistic applies to 70% of people, this person might be one of the 30%. Since we would all wish to be treated as individuals and not condemned because of the actions of someone else, or even simply assumed to be and behave like somebody else just because of one characteristic, we should treat others with the same respect as we would want ourselves.

Prejudice can be self re-inforcing in many ways on this basis - eg: if there is more than one kind of person in jail, that kind of person comes to be seen as tending more towards criminal behaviour, so it more often arrested and jailed.

Consider also this claim: "Men are better swimmers than women because they naturally have better upper body strength." this seems to be supported by Olympic times - men are always fastest. However, whenever I (a man) go to the pool am overtaken by women swimmers every time. Consider the distribution (probably a 'normal distribution' in statistics) of men and women's time, across the whole population, overlaid on each other. Only one narrow band at the edge would contain men while most would overlap. Mostly, women are just as good as men and it is only at the extreme end that a difference appears. If we were marooned on an island and someone had to swim for help, you would not pick me just because I am a man.

Tekne = how to, Logos = rational knowledge.

Technology is about 'knowing how to do' things. So it is necessarily within the domain of ethics. If enables us to do something, it gives us then the choice to do it or not. It necessarily and in every case involves ethics and moral choices. Should we do this? Who can do this? Who should have this done to them? Who can do what and who can do what to who?

It's often remarked that technology is a tool and the ethics depend on what we do with it. But there is a problem (as with massacres map data re-use).

The scientists who worked on the atomic bomb were supposed to be able to sleep at night because it was not their decision whether to drop it. They only were to figure out how to make it. But they deeply regretted having built it. American gun people say guns don't kill people, people kill people.

Look at the difference as analogous to potential and kinetic energy. To say it only depends on what we do with it is like kinetic energy. But the whole point of an atomic bomb or a gun, like it's potential, is to kill people. It's absurd to say that making a device specifically made to kill people leaves you with no responsibility. You are enabling this killing. Cybernetics is about enabling, empowering etc.

"algorithmic bias" - eg: racist face recognition, racist soap dispenser, sexist Google search term: "CEO"