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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - Ethics in general: ethics, action and freedom

from Part I - Bioethics and Ethics



In reading this chapter you will:

reflect on the practical nature of ethics;

consider the place of rules in ethical decision-making;

acquire an understanding of why ethical dilemmas arise;

learn how to distinguish first order ethics and second order ethics;

consider the relation between ethics and truth;

learn how to distinguish epistemology from metaphysics;

reflect on the importance of free will to ethics and on the possibility we do not have free will;

think about how religion is related to ethics.

People can be surprised to discover that ethics is primarily a practical discipline. But if ethics didn’t link with action it would be useless. Ethics, after all, is concerned with what we should and shouldn’t do. Should we clone human beings (Chapters 7 and 8)? Should we pursue immortality (Chapter 12)? Should we produce genetically modi- fied crops (Chapter 17) or ‘engineer’ our genes (Chapter 14) or those of animals (Chapters 17 and 20)? All these decisions are ethical decisions.

Ethics and rules

Ethical decision-making would be easy if all we had to do was follow the small set of rules – ‘do not lie’, ‘keep promises’ and so on – we were given as we grew up. But there is more to moral decision-making than this. Consider the following situation:

Your friend comes home from the hairdresser’s, strikes a pose and says: ‘what do you think?’ You think: ‘yuk!’

You have a problem. It is not a problem you can solve by invoking the rules you were given as a child. Those would certainly have included both ‘be honest’ and ‘be kind’ and your problem is that in this situation it seems impossible to be both honest and kind.

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Ridley, M. 1997 The Origins of Virtue London Penguin Press