The New Internationalist Magazine Presents An International Basketful Of Ethical Stances, From Buddhism To Environmentalism, Taking In Freud, Marx, Gandhi And Many More Along The Way.


Lofty ideas... ?

illustration of religious leaders in hot air baloon by Anne Cakebread

NI presents an international basketful - or two - of ethical stances

The Greeks

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The horny, violent and amoral gods of Greek mythology were hardly role models for humans and certainly didn't offer an ethical system. Maybe as a result, secular philosophy flourished in Classical Greece. For Socrates (c 469-399 BC) the human capacity to question was all- important: an unexamined life is not worth living. Real knowledge and right behaviour exist - but you have to discover them for yourself. Socrates also had a knack for asking questions that revealed how little we really know about anything. Plato (c 428-354 BC) thought there were two kinds of knowledge: empirical knowledge which we obtain through the senses, and the 'vastly superior' knowledge we get through using our reason. Only a few experts ever discover the latter and these experts should be put in charge of everyone else. Plato was an elitist and a moral absolutist who believed that morality is a part of the structure of the universe itself. But Aristotle (384-322 BC) thought ethics should be determined by ordinary practical people, exercising common sense and moderation. He believed that we are programmed with the capacity for justice, fairness and courage and we become moral by working at it, much as we learn to play the piano by practising.

Chinese ethics

Chinese ethics is more social and less individualistic than Western philosophy. In Classical Chinese philosophy, ethics consists of two parts: dao (the way) and de (virtue). A social dao or 'way' is what guides us and the job of ethical thinkers is to reflect on how to preserve, transmit or change this way. De or 'Virtue' consists of the character traits, skills and dispositions induced by exposure to dao. Both dao and de encompass more than morality proper but also apply to fashion, etiquette, economics, prudence and even archery. Confucius (551-479 BC), the most influential of Chinese ethical thinkers, saw himself not as a philosopher but as a historical scholar, transmitting a code of social conduct inherited from ancient sage kings. Utilitarian and pragmatic approaches emerged with later philosophers, Mozi and Xunzi. Contact with the West brought new influences, socialism and pragmatism being the most attractive to Chinese intellectuals and political leaders.

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Hindu ethics tend to be complex and unworldly. The Upanishads (c 900-200 BC) are the key philosophical texts. In these, metaphysical pursuits are placed above worldly pursuits. The idea of social responsibility is almost dispensed with. But there are other more socially aware Hindu texts, such as Manu's Law Books, which make it mandatory for kings to attend first to the welfare of their citizens and to protect the rights of the individual within a group. The Ramayana and Mahabharata popular epics explore the struggles, paradoxes and difficulties of coming to terms with the evolving idea of dharma (moral and social order). The message is: you must do your duty according to your 'nature' and that duty is determined by your place or class in society. These epics, however, do manage to resolve the deep conflict between asceticism and duty by synthesizing the two in the concept of nuishkama karma or 'disinterested action' - an idea that was to provide part of the foundation for Gandhism.


illustration of the Buddha

The Buddha, Prince Siddharta Gautama (born 563 BC), was born into such luxury that he did not even know suffering and death existed until he glimpsed them one day outside his palace walls. He set off on a spiritual journey. The result was an ethical system characterized by simplicity, frugality and compassion. In Buddhist ethics motives are what matter most. If an action has its roots in greed, hatred and delusion, then it is unwholesome or bad; if in liberality, compassionate love and wisdom, then it is good. But the consequences of actions also matter, as do working towards the material and spiritual welfare of others. Actions in this life and the accumulation of merit will affect future reincarnations. But sin, guilt and worry about past offences play no part in the Buddhist conception of wrong-doing. The five core Buddhist values are: abstain from killing and hurting living creatures; from stealing; from wrong indulgence in sensual pleasures; from lying; and from taking intoxicants.


illustration of Jain leader

Jainism is both a philosophical system and a way of life in its own right. It originated in India and was founded in 500 BC by Mahavira, an ascetic and unorthodox teacher. Like Buddha, with whom he has been compared, he was non-theistic, rejecting a 'supremely personal God'. Jains believe that every entity in the world has a jiva or a sentient principle whose distinguishing features are consciousness, vital energy and a happy disposition. The most fundamental principle is that you should not harm any sentient being, even the tiniest insect. These concerns make Jains the earliest protagonists of 'animal liberation' and vigorous exponents of vegetarianism. Truthfulness and non-possessiveness are also central to the Jain ethical system.


illustration of jesus

Practical perfection in this world is the main aim of Jewish ethics. The central doctrine is that human beings are created in the image of God and can reach their most perfect self-realization through worship and imitation of God. One of the best ways to do this is through decent, humane and moral relations with one's fellows. You should love your neighbour as yourself. The best known of the ethical teachings of the Bible are the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, Jewish mysticism (or the Kabbalah) teaches that the physical and the spiritual are in a constant state of active interpenetration so that the moral actions of humans can have a profound impact on the very structure of the universe. Jesus of Nazareth (died 33 AD) was a Jew who took the Jewish notion of reciprocity one step further. He taught that we should not only love our neighbours as ourselves but also love our enemies, and there should be no limit to our forgiveness for injuries. Jesus did not give any precise moral rulings. He said nothing about war, capital punishment, gambling, equality, sex, slavery, or contraception. But he challenged society's standards in his attitudes towards the poor, heretics, prostitutes, adulterers, lepers and women. His followers, especially St Paul, were less restrained in making specific moral pronouncements and condemnations.


Islam is rooted in the idea of 'divine command', of God's revelations to the Prophet Muhammad (died 632), recorded in the Qur'an. This provides a basis for a moral order and presents humanity with a clear distinction between right and wrong which is not subject to human vicissitude. The Prophet's actions, sayings and norms - known collectively as the Sunnah - provide a human model for how to live; while God's commands and prohibitions are formulated into Shari'a laws. The job of Muslim ethics is to create rational awareness that sustains the validity of the revelation. The Qur'an's ideals and commands are translated at a social level through the Muslim concept of community. The Qur'an also strongly emphasizes the ethics of redressing injustice in economic and social life - including improving the status of women. Several different traditions exist within Islam. In Shi'ism, for example, imams - holy men - are believed to be divinely guided and have the power to act as custodians of the Qur'an and interpreters of its vision for individuals as well as society. Sufism is more mystical and esoteric. For Sufists like Al Ghazali (died 1111) the important thing is to cultivate an inner personal life in search of divine love and knowledge. True moral action links this inner awareness to outward expression and practice.

Mayan ethics

illustration of a Mayan indian

According to the Guatemalan Mayan vision of the cosmos, every form of life emerges from the same origin or seed. Some seeds become trees, others flowers, others water, others human beings. Thus each creature is inextricably linked to all others and what one does to a tree affects not only the tree, but oneself and other creatures. This inter-relatedness calls for profound respect between people and their Creator, between people and nature, and among people themselves. The aim of the Maya is to keep their relationships with the world around them, and also the inner life of each person, in perfect balance according to the rhythms of the cosmos. No being is superior to another being, merely different, and from this springs the basic Mayan concept of unity within diversity. In the community each person must be included, as each has their specific contribution to make. Evil is recognized as part of reality and wrong-doing is punished so as to restore the equilibrium between the offender and the victim. Mayan ideas have much in common with those of other indigenous cultures of the Americas, especially in their holism and respect for the environment.


During the Renaissance in Europe there was a shift away from the central role of God in human affairs and a greater emphasis placed on human achievement. The Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), had his work The Prince consigned to the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books. He wrote that the successful ruler needs not only to have virtue but also a readiness to lie, steal, cheat and kill, if need be. 'It is necessary for a Prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good,' he says. His view of human nature was pretty pessimistic. So was that of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He popularized the doctrine that human nature is basically nasty in a theory called Psychological Egoism. His solution was a legalistic form of the reciprocity idea: the 'Social Contract'. To Hobbes morality was simply a way for wicked but rational human beings to avoid conflict. French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) took the opposite view. He believed we are born as moral beings with a huge potential for goodness, which is why children's education is so important. But civilization corrupts this innate goodness. Rousseau and other Romantics believed it possible to form a society which virtually dispenses with government.


Forget about the motives. It's the consequences that count - and those can be measured - was the line taken by two English radicals and freethinkers, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-73). For Bentham human beings are ruled by 'two masters': pleasure and pain. Laws should be passed only if they maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the majority of people 'for the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. Mill, however, saw the dangers of tyranny by the majority. He was all for pluralism: a healthy society should have room for difference and oddballs. He was also in favour of normally sticking to a set of moral rules rather than calculating every act in terms of pain and pleasure. Mill and Bentham were responsible for introducing the then radical notion that the chief duty of a government is to make the majority of their population happy. In recent years animal liberationists have drawn much from Utilitarian thinking, especially Jeremy Bentham who kept a pet pig for company and said: 'The question is not 'do they think?' but 'can they suffer?'.'

Deontologism or Duty ethics

illustration of Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was so regular in his habits that the people of his home town in Germany would set their clocks by observing his daily walks. He thought that morality rarely has anything to do with happiness and is all to do with duty. Ordinary people are right, thought Kant, to believe that morality is essentially about sticking to a set of compulsory rules. He just wanted to give philosophical justification to this belief. He stressed that to be moral we have to imagine ourselves on the receiving end of other people's decisions and universalize from there. Kant's system has been criticized for not allowing for exceptions or for conflicts between moral rules. A more modern development of duty ethics is David Hare's (b 1919) 'Prescriptivism'. He also believes that morality is about obeying rules. But he claims that a moral statement like 'murder is wrong' is more like a recommendation, or an order not to murder, than a statement of fact.

Marxism and Post-Marxism

illustration of Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-83) thought morality is just ideology in disguise and that it exists to serve the interests of the ruling class. Underlying society's beliefs about everything is one thing: economics. Capitalism has survived so successfully because the dominant class has monopolized education, religion, the law and ideas about morality. Belief in the disinterested nature of bourgeois 'justice' and 'morality' is just 'false consciousness', according to Marx. Only after a revolution when everyone is free of illusions about an objective morality will it be possible to create a society which is free and just. Post-Marxists like Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Roland Barthes (1915-80) and Michel Foucault (1926-84) have examined further how the spectacle of consumerism hypnotizes individual citizens into accepting the 'Morality' of Capitalism.


illustration of Gandhi

Though not a philosopher or a religious leader, MK Gandhi (1869-1948) and his ideas have had a huge impact around the world. His core principle is that of non-violent direct action. He toyed first with the idea of non-co-operation, reinforced by his Quaker friends in South Africa. But eventually he came up with a more confrontational but still non-violent concept - that of satyagraha (truth force). In developing this method he combined Hindu, Jain and Buddhist notions. He put it to work in the civil-disobedience movement which eventually led to Indian independence. Since then it has achieved remarkable results in many freedom struggles, including the US Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King. Other non-violent freedom struggles around the world - from Tibet to Greenham Common - have been influenced to some extent by Gandhism.


The Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-80) believed that every individual is unique so no-one can generalize about 'human nature'. He believed that it is we ourselves who are responsible for our essential natures or characters. We are free to 'make' ourselves and if we deny this freedom we are 'inauthentic' cowards, exhibiting 'bad faith'. Morality comes down to the business of making 'fundamental choices'. There are no moral systems or rules or gurus that can help us. You are totally responsible for your final decision and all the anguish that may result from getting it wrong.


illustration of Freud

Until Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) started delving into the unconscious, most moral philosophers assumed that we are always in control of our thought processes and that the choices we make are ours. According to Freud human beings are programmed by instinctive psychic structures in layers of the Unconscious, Ego and Super-Ego. The Unconscious exerts powerful pressures upon us to fulfil our instinctual desires which the Super-Ego insists the Ego deny. The Super-Ego is similar to the conscience. It is like a parental voice reminding us of social norms acquired through childhood. Being moral may not accord with our real natures at all and so to base a moral system on what we essentially are is impossible. Jacques Lacan (1901-81) Freud's most radical modern disciple, went further to say that the self itself is a fiction. It is a linguistic construct and since language exists as a structure before the individual enters into it, then the whole notion of human identity is untenable. So self-knowledge or moral choices cannot be 'ours'.


Post-Modernism is wholly sceptical about the existence of some kind of objective reality or the possibility of using reason to understand it. There is no supreme principle that can tell us which ethical system is the best or truest one: we live in a relativistic universe where there are only human truths and human ethics. Lack of moral certainty makes it impossible to condemn societies whose moral belief systems we find totally repugnant. English philosopher AJ Ayer (1910-89) claimed that moral language is actually meaningless. A statement like 'murder is wrong' is just someone expressing a feeling. This is called 'emotivism' or 'hurra-boo theory'. More recent Post-Modernist thinkers like Jean Francois Lyotard (born 1924) and Jacques Derrida (born 1930) claim that reason is itself a fiction, because it's a human, linguistic construct, not a transcendent entity. Our worship of reason has been the cause of much human suffering and led to dangerous political certainties which insist on the exclusion of 'the other'. The damage done by the 'modernism' of large totalitarian regimes holding on to the objectivity of their utopian visions is stressed by several philosophers. In a post-modern world we are free to shop around for any set of moral values we feel are appropriate. But there are no signposts: we each have to decide for ourselves.

Social ethics

For contemporary thinkers like John Rawls (born 1921) ethics are about the nitty-gritty of working out what agreements are needed to produce a just society. What are the minimum requirements which ensure a balance between the needs of the individual and society? he asks in his Theory of Justice. Liberty and acceptance of difference are important, he asserts. So is basic protection against poverty. Some people will inevitably do well, others less so, but all should be guaranteed a minimum standard of living, with a minimum wage. AlasdairMacIntyr (born 1929) meanwhile suggests that ethics should concentrate less on individuals and their moral decisions and more on the community and its moral health and welfare. He thinks we should focus more on what people should be rather than what they should do. This is known as 'Virtue Theory'. MacIntyr reckons that human beings are unstoppably communitarian and that communal life is held together by those traditions and those virtues that groups encourage in individual members.

Environmental ethics

illustration of a butterfly

Unlike many indigenous ethical systems of the Majority World, traditional Western approaches to the natural environment have been strictly human-centred. The current plight of the planet as a result of human activity now calls for a more holistic kind of ethic. That may mean accepting that humans do not always have moral precedence over other life-forms. The Gaia Hypothesis of James Lovelock (born 1919) suggests that our host planet is itself a huge, ruthlessly self-regulating biological organism. It is not committed to the preservation of human life at all. So it may be very much in our interest to convince our planetary host that we are worth keeping on as environmentally conscientious house-guests. At present environmental ethics are in the process of evolution with various strands emerging. Some theorists remain human-centred, some animal-centred, others promote a life-centred ecological holism. They range from utilitarian claims that humans need a healthy environment and so should take care of it, to discussions about the rights of rocks.

Female ethics

The idea that virtue is in some way gendered, that the standards and criteria of morality are different for women and men, has existed in Western thinking for a long time. The dominant patriarchal view has maintained that by 'nature' women are more intuitive, irrational, gentle, passive, selfless and sympathetic than men. Early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) attacked this view of female 'nature' as an ideological construct whose primary function was to legitimize male supremacy in public life and to restrict women to the domestic sphere. But more recently, contemporary thinkers like feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan (born 1936) have revived ideas of ethics being gendered. She argues that womens' moral responses to problems are 'essentially' different, more co-operative and less aggressive. Such a belief is problematic if one believes, as many feminists do, that the idea of 'female nature' is a social and historical construct. Another modern philosopher Julia Kristeva (born 1941) stresses that there is no such thing as 'essential woman', primarily because of Post-Modernist doubts about the very notion of identity itself.

Illustration by Olivia Rayner.


A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer, Blackwell, 1993.
Ethics for Beginnners
, Dave Robinson and Chris Garratt, Icon, 1996.
Wendy Tyndale for section on Mayan ethics.
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