The Trouble With Ethics

Thursday October 6, 2005


In an earlier article I suggested that often, in seeking to spread the good, we simply cause more suffering. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot since I wrote that, and whilst thinking about it, I remembered an experience that took place in the town of Fez in Morocco, some ten years ago.

I was spending a few days in the town with a Moroccan friend, and he took me to see the owner of an Islamic book store who lived nearby. In the book store, I met a group of young, serious-minded and fervent Muslims. These men were impeccable hosts, their generosity faultless. They gave me tea and food to eat and their company was never less than delightful.

Then one night as they were driving me around the walls of Fez in a blacked-out Mercedes, the crenellated walls of the medieval city sliding past outside the windows, we fell into a fervent debate concerning the virtues of blowing up civilian aircraft for political ends. For all of our understanding, for all of the protestations of friendship, it became clear that there was a gulf between us. For my hosts, such an act was legitimate, although regrettable. And no amount of argument was going to shift them in their convictions; indeed, the argument seemed to have the opposite effect, confirming them ever further in their beliefs.

The day after that conversation I left Fez. My friends and hosts shook my hand warmly before I left, and they wished me a safe journey. I, too, wished them well. I did not hear from them again.

What strikes me most, remembering this curious conversation, was not our differences, but our similarities. These young men had ideals, as I had. They wanted – passionately, urgently – for the world to get better, and I was no different from them in this respect. They were passionately committed to the ideas of justice and goodness, as I believed myself to be. We all spoke in precisely the same terms, the same language of good and bad, although we disagreed about what precisely was good and what precisely was bad. This story brings to mind Plato’s dialogue with Euthyphro:

SOCRATES: What are the subjects of difference that cause hatred and anger? Let us look at it this way. If you and I were to differ about number as to which is the greater, would this difference make us enemies and angry with each other, or would we proceed to count and soon resolve our difference about this?
EUTHYPHRO: We would certainly do so.
SOCRATES: Again, if we differed about the larger and the smaller, we would turn to measurement and soon cease to differ.
EUTHYPHRO: That is so.
SOCRATES: And about the heavier and the lighter, we would resort to weighing and be reconciled.
EUTHYPHRO: Or course.
SOCRATES: What subject of difference would make us angry and hostile to each other if we were unable to come to a decision? Perhaps you do not have an answer ready, but examine as I tell you whether these subjects are the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. Are these not the subjects of difference about which, when we are unable to come to a satisfactory decision, you and I and other men become hostile to each other whenever we do?
EUTHYPHRO: That is the difference, Socrates, about those subjects.

That, alas, is the trouble with ethics. We do not dispute over number and measure, because we can find a resolution of such disputes with relative ease. We dispute about good and bad. Our ethical consciences, far from being a cure for the ills of the world, can sow hatred and disharmony amongst us. To put it bluntly: we are accustomed of thinking of ethics as the cure for hatred; but it is also often the cause.

Although some claim we are living in a time of moral decline, that we take no notice of ethics any more, a little reflection will show that this is not true. We spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about ethics. It is not just a trivial matter to which we return when we are exhausted from our everyday labours – the quest for scientific and technical knowledge, the need to earn a living, the myriad webs of responsibilities in which we find ourselves enmeshed – but is the thing upon which we expend our greatest energies. We talk constantly, obsessively, about justice and rights and duties and right and wrong. We argue of the rightness or the wrongness of this or that action. The airwaves are filled with disputatious voices crying fair and foul. We fail to sleep because we scent an injustice done towards us. We have the courage of our convictions. We even claim, sometimes, to have such a thing as moral certainty.

Moral certainty? Surely this is the problem: we are so certain! This was the problem with the young men I met in Fez, it is the problem with our leaders who take us to wars on the basis of the most flimsy of evidence, it is a problem with ourselves, who jump so easily to judgement. There is too little caution, too little moral uncertainty, too little moral unease. We hold to our ethical beliefs with all a tenacity that hints at a desperate fear beneath. When others fail to understand our reasoning, we take a stand; and are outraged to find that these others harden their stance in opposition to us.

The Pali texts are eloquent on this trouble with ethics. The following comes from the Sutta Nipata:

I speak of two fruits of dispute;
and seeing this, you shouldn’t dispute
seeing the state
where there’s no dispute
as secure.

One who knows
doesn’t get involved
in whatever are

One who is uninvolved:
when he’s forming no preference
for what’s seen, for what’s heard,
why would he get

Yes, ethics surely matter. But, perhaps the most important thing is what we do, an ethics that is lived, our ethos, the way we bear ourselves within the world. This is what the text means by being ‘uninvolved’: not being unconcerned, but turning away from disputes that so often, although motivated by all that is good, are the source of much that is terrible.

# · Luan

I agree with you, whenever an act is committed it might be wrong to one person but for another, it is the right thing to do…I found your posts very interesting and I realize that you use text pattern to help you post maybe you might be interested in trying out this other newly developed software of ours – Qumana. It has some pretty great features. For instance you can drag-and-drop pieces of text and pictures while surfing and edit on the fly. It also features Technorati tags. You could download it from hope you can try it out. You can email me at Thanks
# · Will

Thanks for the comment. I’ll certainly have a look at qumana. Thanks for letting me know it’s out there!


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