Ethical authorities

Ethical authorities

So, we’ve arrived at an ethical position, using emotion and intuition to start us off, reason to modify how we feel, and language to express it. How can we make sure that our course of action is the correct one? Who can we turn to for authoritative advice on ethics?

The government

By ‘the government’, we could mean the law, the police, the civil service, and politicians in general. Arguments in favour of respecting the will of authority include the fact that rules are made up by individuals who are generally experienced and accomplished and that most of us live in political systems which have been chosen by us or our families – ie, democratic states. In addition, they have generally evolved over a great deal of time, and in the history of most states, some degree of sacrifice was involved in protecting the integrity of that place, for example, war.
On the other hand, democracies can often be quite far removed from the people, they can be corrupt and self-serving, and quite often, they act against the direct will of the people – we don’t get to vote on every action they take. In addition, people get things wrong, and academic authorities are constantly being re-evaluated (see the section on history).
There are many authorities with whom our ethical position may clash. The most obvious one is the law. Can a course of action be said to be ethically correct and moral if it is illegal? Euthanasia is one obvious example. Many people feel that even though the law in the vast majority of countries states that assisted suicide is wrong, it is, in fact, right. The issue is a complex one, involving individual rights extending as far as allowing us to choose the way we die, the need to retain dignity in the face of physical and mental debilitating afflictions, and the simple fact of pain making life unbearable. The use of drugs is another issue in which the law seems to come up against the will (emotion? Reason?) of a large number of people – who argue for the legalization of certain types of drugs.
The issue becomes even more clouded when one considers that there have been many evil regimes in history, and what they stated was ‘right’ would now be considered horrific. Nazi Germany is the obvious example, and way in which minority groups such as homosexuals, gypsies, and Jews were systematically isolated and then exterminated.
We have to be careful, as well, not to fall into the trap of an argumentum ad vericundiam.


We have already dealt a little with religion, but it is worth going back to, as for many people it is their ultimate authority in how they lead their lives. For those who adhere to religion, their holy book may be either the source of everything they do, or a guideline to how they behave. This is a matter based on faith more than anything else: such books are based on the word of God, and so cannot be questioned. Having said that, there are a great many precepts in all the major world religions that are based on common sense, and work very well for anyone who hopes to live efficiently in a community.
Critics may say that it is therefore only the aspects of a religion that stand up to rational judgement (though shalt not kill, etc.) that are useful – and not, in other words, the very essence of what gives a religious group its raison d’etre. In addition, holy scripture tends to cut into (or even demolish) the idea of free will, which for many people is one of the fundamentals of life.

Personal experience (knowledge and feelings)

Personal experience is vastly important in helping to check a course of action. Ernest Hemingway, whose own ethical position was based on finding out things for himself, rather than basing them on the reports of others, said very simply that:

I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after

So based on this, personal knowledge and feelings of a thing is exceptionally important. Hemingway was writing in relation to bullfighting, a thing which he loved, but only after having witnessed for himself. Before that, he was a devout ‘anti’ when it came to bullfighting – which is one of the reasons he felt that to experience something for oneself was vital in forming a ethical position. There are many things we comment on without having first hand knowledge of a thing, though many would no doubt argue that the killing of an animal in such a way doesn’t need to be experienced first hand – it is just wrong.

The majority view

We live in societies of often many millions of people, and the bigger they become, the more subsumed our own personal ideas and outlooks sometimes seem to become. It is easy in this environment to base your views on those of others, and not stand up for what you believe is right when that is a idea going against the majority.
Obviously, this is because to a large extent we have to behave according to the precepts of other people – if we’re going to get on with them, we can’t always be clashing with them. On the other hand, history shows us that there have often been morally questionable laws and ideas accepted by the majority that we now view with either revulsion or scepticism. Examples include:

Public executions, often involving horrendous methods of killing
Takeovers of undeveloped nations without thought for the indigenous peoples
Acceptance of the laws of the church even when they went against what people observed in nature
Cruel pastimes and sports – gladiatorial combat, bear baiting, etc.
Support for one-party state leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin (they enjoyed a great deal of support – it wasn’t just coercion that kept them in power)

There are many more examples – the point is, we should be careful not be fooled by the argumentum ad populum.

Self-interest and the Golden Rule

Self-interest is commonly used as an appeal to those who break moral codes. They are asked (it’s a line used by teachers every day, throughout the world!) ‘How would you like it if someone did that to you?’ and superficially, it seems like a water-tight argument. It is consistent with the ‘golden rule’ of ethics, which is, (as the bible puts it) ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’.
Unfortunately, it presupposes that others have the same belief in such a ‘golden rule’, which is often a false assumption. There are many people who do not accept that people should be treated equally. Much like systems such as communism and Christianity, it only works if everyone cooperates, which is to ask too much of human beings. Can we be expected to treat everyone in the same way? A complete stranger identically to a relative or a girlfriend or a close friend?

Intention and consequences

By considering the intention or the consequences of an action, we are moving into the territory of one of the main debates of ethics, which will be discussed in the next section. Basically, one can consider either the intent or the consequences of an action, and judge it accordingly. There are convincing arguments for both of these, though the implications lead us in very different directions. More on this here.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Ethical authorities (10th May 2013). Last accessed: 23rd February 2017


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