from The Worldview Literacy Book   copyright 2009            back to worldview theme #42


     The subdivisions of ethics are charted in Figure #42a.  Its connection with morality has been discussed elsewhere (see Discussion, theme #16).  Many use the terms synonymously.  While both connect with right and wrong conduct, ethics is concerned with the principles, assumptions, and reasoning upon which moral judgments rest.  Like value judgments, moral judgments bridge the gap between "what is" and "what ought to be."  More fundamentally they decide what is right and wrong by appealing to some ultimate authority, standards or principles —which provide the basis for an associated code of conduct.  Religion has been a major source of morality, providing moral guides like The Ten Commandments, The Golden Rule (theme #16), The Noble Eightfold Path, etc. They are byproducts of peoples' search for guidance through prayer, the right path (Figure #42b), and divine revelation.

     Is belief in a moralistic God (theme #14) needed to be a good person?  See Figure #42c.  While the religious & philosophical foundation of morality & ethics is ancient, in recent centuries it has been enriched by those working in many fields—including science, medicine, economics, law, and psychology.  While this topic has a reputation for complexity, and the most inspired prophets and greatest thinkers have contributed to ethical & moral wisdom—it can be distilled into a few, common sense rules & recipes for treating people.

     Children hear them ("Don't Lie" "Don't Hurt People") from parents,  ("Do unto others..." "Thou shalt not...") at Sunday School, and, according to Robert Fulghum in All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, when they start school  ("Don't take things that aren't yours" "Don't hit people" "Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody" "Play fair"   "Share everything" "Clean up your own mess").  While much of this is straight forward, these last three admonitions do lead to complexities.  The first gets at distributive justice, the second provides a simple way of doing this—strict egalitarianism—and the third introduces environmental ethics. (See Discussion, theme #27 "Belonging to Nature" for more.)




 Distributive justice is concerned with right or just ways to allocate the goods, benefits and burdens of economic activity to members of society.  Plans for doing this vary according to 1) what is to be distributed: wealth, income, utility, opportunity, welfare, etc; 2) over what group the distribution to be made; 3) how is the distribution to be made.  Libertarians (theme #50A) feel it should not be made or, like economic individualists (theme #19), made by the free market. Socialists (theme #49B) tend to be strict egalitarians.  "Global Citizens" (theme #37B) want to spread whatever is being distributed to all humans; those who like "Proud Identification" (theme #37A) would limit it to their nation/nation state; animal rights activists (theme #44B) and deep ecologists (theme #27) would broaden it to living things other than humans.  Those valuing "Education for Democracy" (theme #31) would focus on distributing educational opportunity, social welfare statists (theme #49A) on welfare, prioritarians on giving priority to the less well off, and utilitarians on utility.

     The latter group evaluates the moral rightness of actions by the extent to which they produce the greatest benefit to all concerned. Those who pursue the "Ethical Orientation" are sympathetic to that, but tend to be rule utilitarians, rather than act utilitarians.  As such they follow generally accepted moral rules or principles.  In particular, they use those embodied in the three questions stated in the worldview theme description above, instead of basing action on (an often difficult or impossible) quantitative assessment of the utility of several different possible actions.

     Throughout history, the distribution of resources has been viewed as fixed by nature or God.  Hunter-gatherer societies solved unequal distribution problems by moving; feudal societies accepted them and looked to God for ultimate justice.  As democracy developed, people increasingly saw government as a tool for distributive justice.  After the prominent failure of centralized socialist governments (notably in the Soviet Union, and apparently in China) to idealistically share economic benefits, many look to reforming capitalism to overcome such injustice.  This is  a goal of those who like "Ethical Globalization" (theme #51). Technology has brought great economic benefits.  Fairly distributing them, avoiding related bioethical pitfalls, and "brave new world" nightmares is a new challenge.

  Figure #42a:     ETHICSDIVISIONS OF                                                                                                                                      



key questions:

Re: Moral judgments

What is their meaning and nature?

How are they defended and supported?

In what way or ways are they actually used?

goal: understanding                          No attempt is made to evaluate or rank specific choices.

division: between believers in existence of  objective moral rules (universalists), and non-believers  (ethical relativists) 

key question:         

How should one act or behave?

goal: identifying universal rules (or norms) to guide human behavior


Consequentialism: focus on rightness or wrongness of  the consequences of one's actions

Deontologicalfocus on rightness or wrongness of actions per one's duties, others' rights

Utilitarianism : rightness linked to maximizing value & benefits for the greatest number of human beings


Stoicism: right is resignation to duty,  indifferent to the consequences

Christian,  Islamic: right is obedience to God's will

Egoismrightness linked to maximizing value for one's self

Kant: right means according to reason

Locke: right means consistent with human natural rights

Figure #42b:

Figure #42c: Is Belief In a Moralistic God Needed To Be a Good, Ethical Person? 

yes—For some W.T. Stace reports, "I remember ... an ardent Christian who told me that if he did not believe in a future life, in heaven and hell, he would rape, murder, steal, and be a drunkard."  (from "Man Against Darkness")

 no—Many people, universally respected for contributions to society and their ethics—including Albert Einstein, John Stuart Mill, Sigmund Freud, Linus Pauling, Bob Geldof, etc.--have renounced belief in a personal God.           


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