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Ethics 101


There are a number of ethical debates before our New Zealand parliament this term: abortion, euthanasia, medical marijuana,…

There are a lot of polls, plenty of articles (in newspapers, magazines, and online), news reports, and social media posts… “I feel” (or “I think” which is essentially “I feel” without being as honest that it’s a feeling), personal stories and experiences – these are all very important in these discussions.

I often look in vain, however, for solid ethical theories as part of the discussions as well. Are journalists being responsible when, in lengthy articles, there is no educational component in terms of outlining ethical theories?

The (Anglican) Church is stuck in its own cul-de-sac going round and round and not getting anywhere about who may love whom and how while the rest of the world is rocketing past this cul-de-sac at an ever-increasing speed. Many in the Church look little further than texts from two millennia and more ago written in languages that most no longer understand – so we are several degrees of separation from these texts: different time (by thousands of years), different culture, different language. Within the Church cul-de-sac, Anglicans cannot come to an agreement what these ancient texts mean for our contemporary context. Outside the cul-de-sac, the energy spent within the cul-de-sac in going round and round provides no template for the issues the rest are confronting.

We have to move further than “The Bible says” in engaging with contemporary ethical issues in our increasingly complex world. The issues before us include artificial intelligence, cloning, combining DNA from a number of people, altering DNA of people, enhancing human abilities digitally (and/or with drugs),…

Let’s insert some rigour into the debates (without decrying the human-experience stories, they are important too). Here’s three different ethical approaches that people need to be agile with:


an action is right or wrong in and of itself. Eg. lying is always wrong; killing is always wrong;…


an action is right or wrong not in and of itself, but based on the consequences of the action. An action is good when it will produce a good outcome.

At least Roman Catholicism moves beyond disputing what “The Bible says”. It normally follows a deontological system (“Natural Law”). The end doesn’t justify the means. Some current controversy surrounds Pope Francis who, while not questioning the black-and-white ethics of his inherited deontological system, does acknowledge that the world individuals concretely live in is not the black-and-white world of the ethics classroom, but the complex world of shades and colours.

Does your pastor, spiritual leader, Member of Parliament, or journalist have the agility to discuss ethics with such rigour? Or are decisions going to be made simply based on the proportion of people who think/feel “this is a good thing to do”?

Let me conclude by adding another approach alongside the two mutually-exclusive positions of Deontological and Consequentialism:


Keeping to the simple introductions of terms in this post – Proportionalism sees the Deontological approach as the starting place – an action is right in and of itself – but keeps one eye on possible consequences. So, normally lying is wrong and we don’t lie. But – the gestapo come to our door in Amsterdam during the Second World War and ask if we are hiding Jews in our home. We lie, because the consequences of telling the truth (yes, Anne Frank and her family are behind that bookcase) is greater than the principle of not lying in this case. The consequences are not in proportion to the action. We choose the lesser of two evils.

[Proportionalism is not permitted in Roman Catholicism (see Pope John Paul II Veritatis Splendor 75 and Evangelium Vitae 68). You can visualise the slippery slope they see once you allow that, on occasion, the end might justify the means. The foundations crack and become unstable].

As I have said previously, in a post on euthanasia, the culture of this website is a place for light, not heat. In comments, you can respectfully disagree with one another. Use your ordinary name – no anonymous or pseudonymous comments. And remember there are real people with feelings and often tragic experiences reading what you write.

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18 thoughts on “Ethics 101”

  1. I think there is rather more to moral theories than what you have summarised here Bosco.

    For example, refusing to tell the Nazis where the Jews are hiding may not be proportionalism at all, it may simply recognize that Nazis have no right to that information and that one in fact has a duty to withhold it from them. There are various ways of doing that.

    A better approach, I believe, is a careful analysis of the proximate and remote moral objects chosen. Precisely what is it that the person is choosing to do. Is that the kind of action which is good or bad for others ?

    This approach has helpful applications when considering, for example, whether couples choosing a state same sex marriage are choosing something morally good or morally bad.

    I am not a great fan of double effect (it is nowhere defined in Catholic doctrine). It really boils down to the “moral object chosen” approach I have outlined.

    Many Blessings

    1. Yes, Chris – it would be daft to think that my couple of lines cover all that could be said about an ethical theory!

      And, yes, there are a number of other ethical theories. Some of these will also result in refusing to tell the Nazis where the Jews are hiding.

      I did not mention the Principle of Double Effect – but, yes again, it is a way many people work within Natural Law. Double Effect, for readers unaware of it, works like this – a woman may use the Pill if it is the only way to prevent unbearable period pains; that this also acts as an artificial contraceptive is not – within Natural Law – immoral as that is an effect of the allowable usage of this pill to remove pain.


    2. Thanks Bosco,

      The “moral object chosen” approach would consider the moral choice being made: which is to prevent unbearable period pains. Other unintended side effects are merely tolerated.

      A good test is to ask : if there was a method to relieve the unbearable pain which did not contracept, would I use that instead ?

      FWIW, this establishes the case that the use of contraceptive medications is not in itself morally evil ie not intrinsically evil. Contra ultraconservative moral theories.

      There is a good summary of the Catholic approach to moral theology here:


      Many Blessings

      1. Thanks, Chris. I think your “good test to ask” is unclear. Are you saying that RC teaching is that if there were “a method to relieve the unbearable pain which did not contracept” one would be required to use that? My understanding is that that is not the case – and both the one that did contracept and the one that didn’t is acceptable in RC teaching. Blessings.

      2. If there were two methods of pain relief which were to all intents and purposes equivalent, except that one contracepted and the other didn’t, and one chose the method which contracepted, then one would actually be choosing to contracept.

        Whether that was against RC teaching would depend on the kind of act that one was choosing to contracept (Humae Vitae only covers conjugal acts – acts of sexual love in marriage, not rape or prostitution or fornication).

        Many Blessings

        1. Sorry to be picky, Chris – but that’s the point of discussion of ethics [and others reading here, I hope you see this is not just a contraception discussion, it is a discussion about methods of making moral decisions]: the choice may not at all be “to contracept” – the contraceptive pill is subsidised to the point of being free; the choice for this may be because the alternative costs. Blessings.

        2. That’s a good point Bosco.

          In that case the two methods would not be “to all intents and purposes equivalent” as I specified above.

          This is a good example of where circumstances impact, not on the morality of the act chosen, but on the ability of human beings to make fully free moral choices. Often in the case of contraception, that fully free choice is lacking.

          The catechism expresses that in these words:

          “1754 The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.”

          Many Blessings

  2. I think that in all our actions we need to be conscious of unforseen consequences and adjust our actions if the unforseen consequences are found to outweigh the benefits of our actions. The Christian concept that we should love at all costs is in my opinion damaging if we always turn a blind eye to unforseen consequences. It is simply impossible and dangerous to love everything and everyone with our minds turned off. In my opinion we need to love with our minds turned on rather simply relying on emotional responses. Many Christians ridicule such opinions…

    1. Thanks, Tim. Yes – one of the benefits of having a thought-through ethical system is to move beyond emotional responses. Blessings.

  3. I know from my studies in Health and well being, that the laws are living, meaning that WE need to be open to a flexible approach in how this is applied to an individual’s care. At the forefront of this is a sense of respect and openness to the needs of others in a non judgemental way. The trick is to have the experience to beable to bend a rule without breaking it. Try holding a plastic ruler and bending it without it breaking, you will find it’s working point. Blessing Ruth

  4. My experience is that the Catholic Church relies more on virtue ethics than on deontological ethics. An act is good insofar as it builds virtue and evil insofar as it builds vice.

  5. Ethics is both the most complex and most simple of subjects. That’s what people don’t accept- it’s the juxtaposition between rightness we feel as other humans and what represents rightness we have been taught in our societies AND the pragmatism of our daily lives within our imperfect societies.

    Most human beings know instinctively what to do when looking into another person’s suffering eyes.

    Whether that person be a victim or a serial killer.

    And many have behaved with compassion who don’t even know of Socrates.

    And some have raped or murdered or created chaos despite high ethical training and supposed commitment to a social order forbidding their actions.

    I wrote a poem when I worked with prisoners:

    ‘Serial killers need socks,

    Cotton and comfortable,
    Basic and clean.

    Not just to save them:
    For me,
    To know there are small actions of kindness


    Grown up ethics says no…we can’t sell assault weapons…politicians must be accountable…followers of Jesus don’t care about business…don’t become a priest unless you accept the demands of celibacy.

    Maybe the biggest demand of ethics is ‘I myself am fallible’.

    The ‘Kingdom of God’ was never physical to provide a life of ease, the end to suffering? An ethical person will not live a life of ease either by giving in to their own frivolous immediacy or refusing to challenge another person’s when necessary.

    The biggest challenges come at our lowest times in life. Or indeed by ancient times the highest, when comfort and riches and security seems paramount.

    There’s a lot of challenges and conflicts now, ‘I know one thing, I know nothing’ should tie in perfectly to what Jesus said we could count on though: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

    I think a lot of countries do attempt ethical mercy by fair trail legislation and prison as punishment not to be further punished etc.

    People spew their basic nature ( Matthew 12 ) but Christians respond with compassion even where the people need to be prisoners. ‘Least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’

    Serial killers need socks.

    1. Thanks, Tracy. I also think the biggest challenges come for people when they think they won’t be caught – when they are alone; or when they are part of a crowd. Blessings.

  6. ‘ I also think the biggest challenges come for people when they think they won’t be caught – when they are alone; or when they are part of a crowd.’

    Definitely. Self discipline and self-control are so important to ethics.

    I have struggled in recent years not so much with unethical actions but unethical thoughts, anger and resentment. The bitterness which comes with certain life experiences I suppose! But I want to hold on to the values of compassion even though my world now is a rough place, perhaps more so because of it and not want to add to the misery.

    I find turning to art and nature more comforting than religion these days, I thought of that quote today ‘the same world is both a heaven and a hell’. I heard an interesting sermon last year after one of our many many mass shootings, it was called ‘Look to the Helpers’ or something and saying watch the people who roll up to offer assistance after inexplicable tragedy, whether that be the movers for change or just someone offering food and comfort or solidarity. Basic Matthew 25.

    Thanks Bosco.

  7. Philosophical introductions to ethical theory tend to identify deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics as the three main options. As one of the previous comments suggests, virtue ethics is the missing term in this discussion. (And yes, Bosco, I realize that you were not trying to be exhaustive in your initial post. My comment is intended as a friendly amendment.) Given that virtue ethics tends to focus on the state of mind of the individual moral agent, it may not be immediately relevant to discussions of large-scale social policy. But I still find it a useful orientation when I’m trying to decide what sort of person I want to be in response to the meanness that surrounds us.

    1. Yes, you are correct, Duane – this is not an exhaustive study 🙂 I presented three theories along the teleological-deontological axis. In a way, that was framed at the start of the post. I think it is a lot harder to have a virtue ethics discussion around the ethical debates before our New Zealand parliament. But, maybe you would like to suggest how virtue ethics might overcome the impasse that such debates can come to. My primary point was to inject some rigour into the discussions and also to show how discussions often presume approaches along this axis. Blessings.

  8. ‘I think it is a lot harder to have a virtue ethics discussion around the ethical debates before our New Zealand parliament.’

    This on BBC today http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/a959bfd4-1849-4808-942e-2045823671f9

    USA being so fragmented that federal laws often seem both legal and illegal depending where you are ends up with loads of ethical dilemmas. And usually profit tops ethical considerations or intelligent debate…

    When I read the article I was reminded of Aristotle I forget the exact quote but how even in the most exigent circumstances something always shines through.

  9. It was interesting revisiting this after a few years – now that discussions on ethics around Covid (What is a right? What is a temptation?) are being raised. It often seems that ethics have boiled down to two camps: one is whatever emotive word or short phrase you can fit onto a placard (with the idea that it always applies, so there is no point discussing it) while the other camp is that ethics was always one of those esoteric distractions from real life that other people like to discuss, but, well, look at all that is going on around us… so there is no point wasting time of ethical discussions. [Sigh!]
    Sometimes, those “boring” things like statistics and philosophy and actually knowing Scripture enough to spot a scam can be important – a matter of life and death, even. It makes Ethics101 – a grounding in the basics – a pretty important topic to discuss and promote!

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