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Ethics is the branch of philosophy that tries to understand a familiar type of evaluation: the moral evaluation of people's character traits, their conduct, and their institutions. We speak of good and bad people, the morally right or wrong thing to do, just or unjust regimes or laws, how things ought and ought not to be, and how we should live. One part of the subject, metaethics, is concerned with what such judgments mean, what, if anything, they are about, whether they can be true or false, and if so what makes them true or false. The other part of the subject, normative ethics, is concerned with the content of those judgments: What features make an action right or wrong; what is a good life; and what are the characteristics of a just society? This entry will concentrate on normative ethics, though some comments on metaethics will be unavoidable. And within normative ethics it will concentrate on general principles and foundations (what is usually called moral theory) rather than on applied ethics, the discussion of specific cases. Moral theory seeks a systematic understanding of the full range of moral convictions and disagreements and of their possible grounds.

What is Morality?

Morality of some kind seems to be a universal human phenomenon; it is a subpart of the broader domain of the normative, which seems also to be characteristically human. Normative questions and judgments are about what we ought to do, want, believe, or think (rather than just about what we actually do), and about the reasons for and against doing or believing one thing rather than another. Only rational beings, and probably only beings with language, are capable of normative thinking.

Many normative questions are not moral. If we ask whether we ought to believe on the basis of the available evidence that a painting is by Rembrandt, that is a normative question, but not a moral one. Moral questions are about what we ought to do and how we ought to live, not about what we ought to believe. In answering them we need to appeal to what are called practical reasonsreasons for doing or wanting somethingrather than the purely evidential or theoretical reasons that determine the justification for factual or scientific belief.

But not all practical reasons and practical norms are moral, either. There are norms that tell you what you ought to do to keep your rose bushes healthy, the right way to make an omelet, or what to wear if you are going to be knighted by the queen, but these are not moral judgments. The moral is a subpart of the large normative domain of the practical.

Its further definition is the subject of controversy among different moral theories, but a rough approximation is this: Morality identifies certain norms that apply to everyone in a certain group and that should be recognized as valid for everyone by each member of the group although their separate individual aims and desires may differ and lead them into conflict with one another. In most, but not all modern moral theories, the group to which moral norms apply includes all mentally competent human beings. In such theories morality is conceived as consisting of universal norms.

Morality aims to provide us, in the practical domain, with a common point of view from which we can come to agreement about what all of us ought to do. This may be different from what each of us might want to do or want other people to do, if we looked at the question only from our own personal point of view. Morality tries to discover a more objective standpoint of evaluation than that of purely personal preference.

Much of the content of moral norms has to do with our relations to each otherhow we treat each other in our individual conduct and how they are treated by collective institutions that we support. There are also moral norms and evaluations having to do with the way we conduct our own lives, norms that tell us how anyone may succeed or fail in living well. Virtues like prudence and self-control are examples of this universal but partly self-regarding aspect of morality. There are also important moral questions about our relations to the rest of the natural world, especially to other animals. But the bulk of the subject has to do with our lives as members of the human community.

Though there are ethical relativists who disagree, moral rules such as those that condemn murder, injury, lying, stealing, and betrayal and endorse kindness, honesty, and generosity are usually thought to apply universally. Whether this can be shown is one of the big questions of ethics, but such norms are not supposed to depend for their validity on the code of a particular society or group or the laws of a particular government. They are not like local codes of etiquette, taboos, or specific traffic or commercial regulations. Even the wrongness of a crime like murder does not depend on its being against the law. Rather, moral norms are supposed to be recognizable by a form of thought that is available in principle to any adult human beingeven though some people may be better at it than others.

At the center of morality are standards that serve not only the interests of a particular individual who follows them but also the collective good of the community, by making it a safer place or otherwise promoting the general welfare of its members. But for those standards to do their work, most people have to adhere to them. Normative ethics tries both to identify such standards and to explain how individuals, even though their interests diverge in many respects, can be attached to universal norms that serve the common good.

Objective Reasons or Subjective Feelings?

Most moral theories ascribe a kind of objectivity to moral judgments, because such judgments are supposed to issue from a point of view that different people can share and that enables them to arrive at agreement about what should be done, what would be wrong, what would be fair, and so forth. Even when people disagree about such things, they usually share the belief that there is a right answer to the question, though they do not agree about what it is. They do not think of their moral disagreements simply as a divergence of personal preferences.

However, there is controversy about the exact nature of the convergence of judgments that we try to reach in moral thinking and about its source. This is one of the main questions of metaethics: Are moral judgments based on universally valid reasons, which would permit them to be objectively true or false, or do they merely express widespread subjective feelings that many people share? In the latter case, while we can come to agree in these judgments, they do not make claims that are either true or false; rather, they express certain attitudes or responsesthough perhaps responses on which all human beings can converge.

One of the most important defenders of the subjective alternative is the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume (1739, 1751). He argues for the claim that moral judgments express a special type of feeling, sentiment, or attitude on the ground that this is needed to explain how moral norms, like other practical norms, are capable of motivating people to act.

For example, if someone judges that it would be wrong to leave a campsite littered with garbage, this will probably move him or her to take the trouble to clean it up before he or she leaves. If we assume further that motivation must always start from some desire or feeling of the agent, it seems to follow that morality must get its motivational force from something of that kindfor example, from a sympathetic aversion to the unhappiness of others. For how could the recognition of any truth revealed by reasoning or thought alone, without the help of a desire, have the motivational consequences of a normative judgment?

Defenders of the objective alternative usually hold a different view of motivation. They are likely to maintain that while feelings and desires are often the source of motivation, there is also a form of practical reasoning that is capable of motivating rational persons on its own, through the recognition of existing reasons alone. If you decide, after considering the effect on others, that it would be wrong to leave the campsite a mess, you recognize that you have a reason to clean it up, and that will lead you, if you are a decent person, to do so. On this view the motive is produced by recognition of the norm, rather than the norm being the mere expression of a preexisting feeling or motive.

This opposition between the view that moral judgments express subjective feelings and the view that they express objective normative beliefs capable of being true or false has many different forms and subtle variations, but it is present everywhere in ethical theory, and in some cases it plays an important role in disputes over the normative content of morality, although it is primarily an issue of metaethics. It is also important in discussing the question whether moral standards have a universal basis, or whether they are really culturally relative. On the subjective or expressivist theory the relativist conclusion is not necessary, but it seems more of a possibility than on the theory of objective moral reasons.

Morality and Self-Interest

One of the great questions of ethics is whether, and if so to what extent, morality requires us to subordinate our individual self-interest to the general good. There is one view, whose most important representative is the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1651), according to which morality does not conflict with self-interest because its requirements actually derive from self-interest in a subtle way.

Hobbes's argument is that certain rules of conduct are necessary for human beings to live at peace with one another and to enjoy the benefits of civilization, because if people do not abide by those rules they will fall into a miserable condition of insecurity and violence. They are the rules of morality, prohibiting murder, assault, theft, fraud, breach of contract, and so forth, and it is in every individual's self-interest to live in a society in which they are followed. General adherence to morality serves the collective self-interest of all the individual members of any community.

This alone is not enough, however, to show that private adherence to those rules is in the individual self-interest of each member of the community. That general adherence is in the collective interest of all does not imply that individual adherence is in the personal interest of each, because an individual cannot by his or her own conduct bring it about that others will act in the same way. What would serve the collective self-interest therefore does not necessarily coincide with what people would be led to do by their individual self-interest.

Hobbes thinks that reasoning allows us to see that collective self-interest would be served by general adherence to the rules of morality, but that individual self-interest makes it irrational to follow those rules on our own, since that would simply permit others to take advantage of us. He concludes that to bring the rule of morality into effect, it is necessary to provide all individuals with incentives guaranteeing that individual and collective self-interest will coincide. This can be done only by a system of law, enforced by a sovereign with a monopoly of force over the members of the community. Only then will it be safe for each person to follow the rules, knowing others will also follow them because it is likewise in their personal interest to do so.

According to this theory self-interest does not motivate us to abide by the requirements of morality directly. If we could get away with it, self-interest would lead us to prefer that everyone else followed the rules, while we ourselves were exempt from them. But that alternative is not available, and it would be much worse for each of us if no one followed the rules. So the uniform solution that serves all of our interests best is that everyone follow the rules and that a system of incentives be set up to ensure that no individual can do better for himself or herself by breaking them.

There are also theories descended from that of Hobbes that preserve the connection between morality and self-interest but do not rely for stability only on external incentives produced by the enforcement mechanisms of a legal system. The Canadian American philosopher David Gauthier (1986) proposes that some of the work of bringing individual and collective self-interest to coincide can be done by internalizing the moral rules, so that individuals are inhibited against breaking them even apart from the threat of punishment. Feelings of guilt, for example, are a kind of emotional self-punishment that people who have internalized the rules inflict on themselves when they break them. It is in our collective interest for each member of the community to be subject to such feelings, because a community in which the moral norms have been internalized in this way provides its members with the benefits of mutual trust and peaceful cooperation.

In views of this kind there is already a departure from the reliance exclusively on self-interest to motivate moral conduct, even though morality is thought to serve the interest of each of its adherents. But many moral theories put a much greater distance than this between morality and self-interest. In different ways, most modern accounts of morality part company with Hobbes and base the appeal of moral norms on a concern for everyone, not just for oneself. This means that morality may sometimes require the individual to sacrifice his or her own interests for the good of others or to avoid transgressing the rights of others. That poses the question of the nature of the reasons or motives that can outweigh self-interest in these cases. If you can make a gain by harming someone else, why shouldn't you do it?

Consequentialism and Utilitarianism

One important type of answer to this question is that everyone's life is just as important or valuable as everyone else's, and in particular your happiness is no more valuable than other people's happiness. Therefore, you have a reason to care impartially about what happens to everybody, and in your conduct should try to promote the general good and not just your own.

This depends on an important distinction between two ways in which things can be good or bad: They can be good or bad for someone, or they can be good or bad, period. If something is good for me, that obviously gives me a reason to want and promote it, but it does not obviously follow that anyone else has a reason to want and promote it, unless it is also good for him or her. But if something is simply good, period, then it is something anyone has a reason to want and promote.

Some things, like health and pleasure, are clearly good for the person who has them. And it is possible to hold the view that this is the only kind of value there isvalue for someone. On this view there may be things, like the destruction of the ozone layer, that would be bad for everyone, but even that would not make it bad, period. Most ethical theories, however, hold that some of the things that are good or bad for individuals, like pleasure and pain, or happiness and unhappiness, are also good or bad without qualificationobjectively good or bad, one might say. And each person has a common reason to promote what is good and to prevent what is bad in this waynot only what is good or bad for him- or herself. Some theories derive the content of morality entirely from such a conception of objective valuemaintaining that morality emerges once we recognize the objective value and disvalue of the occurrence of all those things that are good or bad for individuals.

Utilitarianism is the most fully developed version of such a theory. A version of it is found in Hume; it was further developed by the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1798), John Stuart Mill (1863), and Henry Sidgwick (1907) and continues to be influential. Utilitarianism holds that morality is simply the specification of those forms of conduct that contribute most effectively to the greatest overall happiness for all personsor all sentient beingsimpartially considered.

The basic value on which the whole theory depends is some measure of what is good in the lives or experiences of particular individualswhat is in itself desirable for them, and therefore also objectively valuable. This may be pleasure and the avoidance of pain, happiness and the avoidance of unhappiness, the satisfaction of their desires or preferences and the avoidance of their frustration, or perhaps some other measure, depending on the particular version of utilitarianism. Whatever the measure, it must be roughly quantifiable in a way that allows comparison between persons, and addition and subtraction of the amounts of the value to determine the total that is present in complex cases involving many people with different experiences.

This measure of value is called utility (a technical termin this context the word does not mean "usefulness"). Utilitarianism is the theory that we should act, and organize our institutions, so as to promote the maximum total amount of utility, weighing the utility that arises in the lives of all persons impartially. This is sometimes crudely expressed by the formula "the greatest good for the greatest number."

What matters, according to this view, is not the quality of our actions themselves but the utility, as measured for example by general happiness, of the overall outcome of what we do, compared with the available alternatives. For this reason utilitarianism is an example of a consequentialist moral theory. It is results that matter, not the means by which we reach them. So an important feature of consequentialism is that it does not make a fundamental moral distinction between positive and negative responsibility for good or bad outcomes.

For example, one is positively responsible for someone else's suffering if one deliberately hurts that person, but negatively responsible if one fails to save him or her from being harmed. According to utilitarianism this alone makes no moral difference between the two cases: Morality does not require merely that you not harm people; it makes you equally responsible for the prevention of harm, from whatever cause. It even requires you to cause harm if that is the most effective way to bring about the greatest overall balance of good. If there is a moral difference between harming and failing to prevent harm, it must be due to some difference in the utility of the results.

Another significant feature of utilitarianism is that what matters in determining the rightness or wrongness of actions is the total utility that results, not how it is distributed among individuals. In calculating the total we add together or aggregate quantities of utility from different lives, and the sum of many small amounts of pleasure or pain from different people's experiences may add up to much more utility than the intense pleasure or pain of one individual.

Working out the details for principles of conduct and political, social, and economic institutions depends on estimates of the likely results of the various alternatives, and combining probabilities and utilities to arrive at a measure of what is called expected utility. This is often uncertain and difficult. But the ultimate moral foundation is simple: What matters is that people should have good experiences and avoid bad ones, and the higher the overall balance of good minus bad, the better. The aim of morality is to tell us how to maximize the amount of good in the world, where good is measured objectively and impartially, so that our own personal good is no more important a part of the total than anyone else's.

Rights, Obligations, Equality, and Desert

Some familiar aspects of ordinary moral thought do not seem to conform to the utilitarian standard. One of the most controversial issues in moral theory is whether those aspects can be explained by utilitarianism, and if not, whether we should conclude that utilitarianism is false or that those aspects must be rejected.

Apparently, counterutilitarian moral norms are those that either require or permit a course of action or policy that fails to maximize utility. One type of example is found in the large and diverse category of individual rights, which include rights against certain kinds of interference or violation by others, and rights to do what one wishes so long as one does not violate the rights of others.

For example, it seems to be widely accepted that each individual has a right not to be killed, injured, enslaved, kidnapped, or imprisoned if he or she is not hurting anyone elseeven when violating one of those rights would be useful as a means to producing a large net balance of benefits overall. Even if someone else's life could be saved by forcibly taking one of your kidneys and transplanting it to him or her, this would not be morally acceptable if you did not consent to it. For another example, each of us is generally thought to have a right to devote most of our resources and attention to our own life and the lives of our friends and family, even if we could do more good overall by dedicating ourselves to the general welfare of everyone.

Other examples come from the sphere of special obligations, both those that arise from particular undertakings, like contracts and promises, and those that follow from standing conditions like citizenship and family membership. Conventional morality holds that one is obligated to keep a promise even if marginally more good than harm would be done by breaking it, that one should give special weight to the welfare of one's children, and so forth.

In ordinary moral reflection on social policy and public institutions, considerations of fairness seem to be sensitive not to the total aggregate welfare produced, but to the distribution of benefits and disadvantages among individuals. A distribution that produces greater total welfare at the cost of great inequality between rich and poor may be morally inferior to one with a lower total but less poverty and more equality of opportunity.

Finally, in thinking about the criminal law, the allocation of punishments seems to be justified not merely by what would produce the most utility, through deterrence and prevention, but also by the requirement that only those who are guilty be punished, and that the punishment deserved is proportional to the gravity of the offense. (The idea of moral desert brings up the large question of free will and moral responsibility. There are those who doubt that people can be responsible for their actions in a way that would mean they deserve punishment for wrongdoing, so that punishment can be justified only as a deterrent. But that issue is beyond the scope of this discussion.)

What these familiar moral ideas have in common is that they do not appear at first sight to interpret the right as what will maximize the overall good for individuals. They seem to rely instead on independent standards for what is right and wrongstandards that either permit or require certain types of actions even if we believe they will not produce the greatest impartial benefit. Such standards set certain moral limits on what we may do to other people and impose certain positive requirements as well, including moral requirements that must be met by the institutions of government. But they leave us morally free to lead our lives as we wish within those boundaries, without having to take the promotion of the general good into account in all our choices.

Standards of this kind (often referred to as deontological standards by contrast with the consequentialist variety) seem to require a foundation different from the impartial concern for the interests of all, which is the basis of utilitarianism. But before discussing what that foundation might be, it is necessary to consider the utilitarian response.

Act-Utilitarianism and Rule-Utilitarianism

Hume holds that all of morality can be accounted for by its tendency to promote utility, but that this works in two different ways. In some cases the relation of a morally good or bad act to utility is direct, as in the case of kindness or cruelty. These he describes as examples of the natural virtues and vicestypes of conduct that increase or decrease utility act by act, through their direct causal effects.

But there is another set of moral requirements, which he calls the artificial virtues, where the effects on utility are not necessarily produced by each morally good act taken alone. Instead, the good effects are produced only by a general rule, convention, or practice, and it is one of the conditions of the utility of rules of this kind that they must be followed even in individual cases where the particular action they require is harmful to utility.

The utilitarian explanation of strict rights, obligations, and duties depends on this type of analysis, which is called rule-utilitarianismby contrast with act-utilitarianism, which assesses the rightness of actions by their effects on utility taken one by one. For example, the institution of stable property rights, without which a functioning economy would be impossible, requires that property owned by one person should not be subject to appropriation by another person whenever the latter can get more utility from it than the former. A landlord has to be able to charge his or her tenants rent, even though they may need the money more than he or she does, or else no one would invest in rental property. The great utility of the general rules of property depends on their being consistently followed even in cases where violating them would advance utility, since that is the only way to ensure security and stability.

Likewise, the institution of promises has great utility because it makes it possible for people to rely on each other's future conduct and to create such reliance. But it can do so only because it is not permissible to break a promise whenever this would produce more utility than keeping it.

To some extent the utilitarian advantage of such rules can be obtained by embodying them in laws of property and contract that are enforced by the courts. But the rules also seem to have moral weight apart from such enforcement: Violation of property rights and breach of promise seem wrong in themselves, and the rule-utilitarian explanation is that they are wrong because they violate valuable institutions or conventions.

Similar explanations can be offered of why it is morally permissible for individuals to live their lives without making every decision on the basis of how they can contribute the most to maximizing utility for humanity as a whole. The reason is that so much of human happiness depends on the pursuit of personal aims and fulfilling personal relationships, and a strict requirement that every act must strive to maximize general utility would make personal projects, friendships, and commitments impossible. In other words, a world governed by strict act-utilitarianism would be a world with much lower overall utility than a world in which not every action aimed to maximize impartial utility.

These are only some examples. The rule-utilitarian strategy can be applied to a wide variety of apparent exceptions to utilitarianism, including rights of bodily integrity, the requirement that punishment be deserved, the right to freedom of speech, the special obligation of parents toward their children, and the values of political, social, and economic equality.

Still, it is not clear just how much of the apparently counterutilitarian morality of rights, obligations, and permissions can be accommodated by rule-utilitarianism in this way. For example, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer (1972, 1979), a prominent utilitarian, argues that in the very unequal world in which we live, there is no justification for the moral latitude most well-off people in rich countries assume they have to favor themselves and their friends and families, when their resources could bring so much more benefit to the destitute in impoverished countries. In Singer's view utilitarianism should be seen as a radical position that cannot be used to underpin conventional morality, but requires that it be overturned.

There is also a theoretical problem about the relation between rule-utilitarianism and moral motivation. The problem is that, if a utilitarian is attached to property rights and the obligation of promises because of the contribution of those institutions to general utility, that does not explain what his or her reason is for abiding by the rule in an individual case that clearly does not serve utility. The utilitarian may say that there is a strong moral reason to want the institution of promises to exist. But if breaking a promise in a particular case will not cause the institution to disappear, or even weaken it noticeably, and if he or she can thereby produce more benefit than harm, why should the utilitarian's moral aim of maximizing utility not lead him or her to conclude that breaking the promise is the right thing to do in that case?

Some utilitarians are prepared to accept this conclusion. This is the act-utilitarian position, according to which laws, conventions, and practices may change the circumstances in ways that affect what acts will best promote utility, but can never make it right to do what one knows will not produce the most benefit.

Others believe that, since utility is best served if individuals have internalized a strict attachment to certain rules so that they are unwilling to break them even to promote utility, this creates an independent reason for adherence in such cases. In a sense, the utility of the rule provides a justification for the moral fiction that there is a reason to act contrary to utility in the particular case.

Kantian Contractualism

The main rival to a consequentialist foundation for rights and special obligations is a theory that emphasizes the separate importance of each individual person instead of the value of maximizing the sum of benefits to the aggregate of all persons. According to this alternative the aim of morality is to find principles of conduct under which people are given equal consideration, not merely as elements in an aggregate, but as individuals. This would mean that the apparently counterutilitarian character of individual rights, for example, is real and cannot be explained away by rule-utilitarianism.

The most important representative of this type of theory is the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1785, 1788), who holds that moral principles can be identified directly by reference to a single standard, which he calls the categorical imperative. (He calls it categorical to indicate that its application to an individual is not conditional on what that person happens to want; the reasons provided by morality do not depend hypothetically on interests or desires, but apply categorically and unconditionally to all persons simply in virtue of their rationality.)

The categorical imperative says, roughly, that we should act only on principles that we would want everyone to act on. It is often referred to as the standard of universalizability, since it means that each of us should govern our conduct by principles that we would be willing to see followed universally. But if this test is to identify a single set of moral principles that apply to everyone, there must be a way to decide what principles we would want everyone to follow that will not give different answers for different people depending on their interests and situation. That implies that in answering the question we must try to take into account the point of view of every person simultaneously, putting ourselves in the place of each of them, and rejecting those principles that could not be accepted by everyone.

The tradition deriving from the categorical imperative is sometimes called contractualism because it identifies moral principles through an imaginary agreement: They are the principles whose adoption by everyone would not be unacceptable to anyone. The results of such a test may be much less determinate than the utilitarian standard, but it does seem to imply some major differences from utilitarianism. First, the insistence on separate acceptability to each individual will rule out justifications that depend on aggregation of small benefits across many lives to outweigh a large cost to a single individual. Second, in deciding what principles are and are not universally acceptable, the determining factor will have to be some system of priorities among the things that matter in human life, and the effects that different principles would have on each person, as measured by these values.

Modern Contractualism

One result will be that in the application of moral standards to social policy, there will be a direct reason to concentrate on the relief of poverty and improvement in the condition of the worst off, not merely as a means of improving the total or average welfare, as in utilitarianism. This is a feature of the American philosopher John Rawls's (1971) theory of justice.

Another result is that the justification for individual rights will be different from that offered by rule-utilitarianism. The right not to be killed, injured, or deprived of liberty even if it would promote the general welfare will depend not on the overall balance of costs against benefits for all people affected by the existence or nonexistence of such a right, but on the importance for each separate individual of the security that such a right provides, by comparison with the advantages for each individual that its absence might make possible.

The right to pursue one's personal aims, interests, and attachments rather than the general welfare in most of what one does will depend not on the effect of such a right on the general welfare, but on the importance for each person of this kind of freedom by comparison with the value for each person of the possible benefits of its general restriction.

The emphasis is on providing certain protections and basic benefits to everyone equally rather than maximizing the overall sum of benefits. This is a fundamental difference in the approach to the foundation of morality, a difference in the way in which the interests of all persons are combined from a moral point of view.

Modern successors to Kant attempt to make the standard more precise in different ways. Rawls claims that what is wrong with utilitarianism is that it does not take seriously the distinction between persons. Writing not about morality in general but about social justice, he embodies the contractualist ideal in an imaginary choice called the Original Position, in which people are supposed to choose the principles of justice for their society without knowing who they are; this forces them to choose principles that would be acceptable whoever they turned out to be. Though influenced by Rawls, T. M. Scanlon (1998), another philosopher in the contractualist tradition, proposes a different test. He maintains that to identify standards of right and wrong we must search for principles that no one seeking to arrive at common standards of interpersonal justification could reasonably reject, knowing both his or her own situation and that of others.

Unlike a consequentialist theory, the contractualist method cannot proceed simply by calculating the total expected costs and benefits of different rules of conduct or forms of political and social organization. Rather, it must evaluate the priorities among different kinds of costs and benefits, for each individual, of living under alternative rules or systems. Which principles and practices are morally acceptable will depend on these priorities, applied equally to everyone.

For example, both utilitarianism and contractualism condemn slavery, but they do so for different reasons. Utilitarianism says slavery is wrong because the total misery of slaves vastly outweighs the total benefit to slave owners. Contractualism says slavery is wrong because any reasonable person thinking about his or her own or any other life must regard the avoidance of the possibility of being a slave as having strict priority over the possibility of enjoying the advantages of being a slave owner.

Deontology: Doing and Allowing

Not everyone who believes in rights and special obligations thinks they have to be justified by either contractualism or rule-utilitarianism. The general term for these apparently nonconsequentialist parts of morality is deontology, and there is an alternative ethical tradition, called intuitionism (represented, for example, by the English philosopher W. David Ross [1930]), according to which the deontological elements of morality are fundamental. They do not derive from anything else, but they reveal themselves to reflection about what would and would not be the right thing to do in different cases.

On this view it is evident that we may not kill an innocent person to save five others (e.g., by harvesting the first person's organs for transplantation), and there is no more fundamental explanation of why we may not: It would be murder, that is all. The details of these moral requirements are sometimes complicated, but they can be discovered by exercising moral intuition in respect to real and imaginary cases that bring out the relevant distinctions.

One of the most important of these distinctions, mentioned earlier, contrasts the things we do to other people, for which we are positively responsible, and the things that happen to other people that we might have been able to prevent, for which we are only negatively responsible. If we kill an innocent person to transplant his or her organs to five others, for example, we would be positively responsible for the death of that person. But if we do not kill that person and the other five die of organ failure, we are not positively responsible for their deaths and have not violated their right to life. This means that the prohibition against murder must include some specification of the way in which one person's conduct has to be related to another person's death for it to count as wrong.

Different accounts have been offered of this relation. It might seem that what matters is whether your action causes the death or whether it is caused by something or someone else. But this turns out to be wrong in two ways. First, you may cause a death as an unavoidable side effect of something else you do, but if you were acting to save many more lives, you are not to blame. For instance, if you are the pilot of a plane that is about to crash, and you steer it from a densely populated area to a sparsely populated area, you are causally responsible for the deaths of a smaller number of people but you are not to blame, because it was a side effect of your aiming the plane away from the larger number.

Second, you may be to blame for a death that you didn't cause but could have prevented, if you deliberately failed to act to ensure that the death would occur. For example, if you let an otherwise healthy patient with asthma choke to death so that you can harvest his or her organs to save five others, you have intentionally allowed the patient's deathaimed at it even without causing itin a way that makes the action wrong.

So the element of intentionintentionally causing or permitting someone's death either as an end in itself or as a means to something elseis an important part of wrongful killing. And rights in general have to be understood as rights against the intentional imposition of harms of various kinds.

In a morality of this kind, we are not generally responsible for preventing what is bad and promoting what is good. Morality is defined instead by a set of constraints against the intentional imposition of harm or violation of rights, plus some well-defined and limited positive obligationslike keeping our promises and taking care of our families.

Instead of deriving the content of morality from a point of view that tries to take everyone's interests into accounteither a consequentialist or a contractarian point of viewintuitionism understands morality as setting a kind of boundary around each person, that protects us from intentional violation and interference by others. Positive obligations are also understood individually, as arising from the specific commitment undertaken by a promise or a contract, explicit or implied, with another person.

Agent-Neutrality and Agent-Relativity

The difference between deontological and consequentialist moral theories can also be described in terms of a formal distinction between two kinds of principles or reasons: agent-relative and agent-neutral.

An agent-relative principle specifies what each individual should do in a way that involves an ineliminable reference to that agent himself or herself, or his or her situationeven when the principle is stated in its most general form. For example, the principles "Everyone may give priority to their own interests over those of a stranger," "Everyone should do what is best for their family," "Everyone should keep their promises," and "Everyone should refrain from killing innocent people" are all agent-relative.

The following principles, however, are all agent-neutral: "Everyone should promote the general welfare," "Everyone should promote the stability and devotion of families," "Everyone should try to minimize the breaking of promises," and "Everyone should aim to minimize the killing of innocent people." Agent-neutral principles depend on the objective value of certain kinds of happenings or states of affairs, without regard to their relation to the agent. All that matters is whether the agent is in a position to affect the occurrence or nonoccurrence of the desirable or undesirable outcome. If the value attaches to a type of action, such as murder, an agent-neutral principle would not distinguish between a murder that the agent commits and one that someone else commits and that the agent could prevent. Accordingly, the principle that everyone should aim to minimize the occurrence of murders could authorize committing one murder to prevent several others.

For this reason, deontological principles naturally take an agent-relative form. They tell each individual what he or she may, must, and must not do, without giving all individuals a common outcome or state of affairs that they must try to promote. Deontological principles are universal, but the aims they assign to each individual always depend on his or her situation and are related to him or her. This logical feature unites the three aspects of deontology: deontological prohibitions"Don't (you) commit murder"; deontological requirements"Keep your promises"; and deontological permissions"You can enjoy your life instead of devoting it to the service of humanity."

The exercise of moral intuition on different cases reveals a surprisingly detailed system of deontological principles on which many people can agree and that form a large part of conventional morality. But the view that there is no systematic foundation underlying these diverse principles, that their truth cannot be explained by something more basic, leaves many moral philosophers dissatisfied.

What they want is a general foundation for deontology to rival the clarity of consequentialism. Since it seems obvious that there is always a reason to prefer better results, deontologists need to explain in a clear fashion why morality often prohibits actions that would have the best overall results and permits other actions that would not have the best overall results. If promoting the best consequences is not, as utilitarianism maintains, the governing standard of morality, then it would be good to know what is.


Contractualism is the most prominent foundational alternative to consequentialism, and it works by offering an alternative interpretation of what it is to treat all persons with impartial respect. But there is another way of criticizing consequentialism, and that is to attack its foundation directly, by denying the moral authority of the impartial point of view.

The criticism goes like this: Ethics is concerned with how people should live and what they should do, and the point of view from which we should seek an answer to that question is the point of view of the individual, not an impersonal point of view that takes into account all individuals at once. Even if this yields moral requirements on how one should treat other people, they must arise from considerations about how one has reason to live one's life and what kind of person one wants to be.

One version of this approach takes as basic the question: What is the difference between a good and a bad person? Once we know the difference between a virtuous and a vicious character, we can identify the morally right thing to do as what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances. This way of understanding the subject is found in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

The reason we all have to care about virtue, on this view, is not an impartial concern for others, but that being a good person is an aspect of being a good human specimenanalogous to physical health and being in good physical condition. To be virtuous is to function well with respect to feelings, desires, motives, and actions, including interactions with other people. Moral virtue, like good physical functioning, is part of the good for each individual, and it has as elements the distinct virtues such as courage, temperance, prudence, generosity, honesty, and justice. Each of these is a set of motivational dispositions and dispositions to choose that lead to virtuous conduct.

Some of the virtues, like courage and temperance, are good partly because they enable the individual to pursue his or her own aims effectively. But a virtue like justice is good for the individual because people are essentially social beings and must be able to live in harmony with others. This conception of ethics leaves the content of interpersonal morality rather vague. Instead of principles of conduct, it offers a rough indication of the types of motivational and behavioral dispositions, recognizable by example in the character of virtuous individuals, to which everyone has reason to aspire, simply in order to be a good person. But at least this account, even if it does not start from impartiality, offers a kind of harmony between the interests of the virtuous individual and the interests of the community to which he or she belongs.

Resistance to Impersonal Morality

A more skeptical challenge to the impartial standpoint comes from the English philosopher Bernard Williams (1981, 1985). He argues that impersonal moral theories, whether consequentialist or contractualist, are incompatible with the integrity of an individual life, which is found in the unconditional commitment to particular projects and particular persons. Such commitments would be impossible if impersonal values were permitted to take precedence over them.

This is most forceful as a response to utilitarianism. Even if, from an impersonal standpoint, everyone's life is just as important as everyone else's, that is simply not true from your individual standpoint, and the impersonal standpoint has no authority on its own to overrule the standpoint of the individual. Ethics is supposed to govern individual conduct, so it must find its basis in the motivation of individuals. This may include some impartial values, but it also includes much else. For most people, life gets its substance and meaning from aims and attachments that are inseparable from the personal point of view. These cannot simply be abandoned when it turns out that there is something impersonally more valuable that one could do with one's life.

Utilitarians can reply in either of two ways. They may say that in rejecting the demands of impersonal value, Williams is simply rejecting morality, and that the whole point of morality is to replace the natural selfishness of individuals with an impartial perspective. Nobody said it would be easy. Alternatively, they may emphasize the ways in which utilitarianism takes into account the point of view of the individual, since it is the source of the happiness whose maximization over all persons utilitarianism takes as the aim of morality.

However, even after we take this second point into account, it is clear that utilitarianism, including rule-utilitarianism, will under some circumstances require the radical subordination of individual aims to the general welfare. There is an important difference of opinion here over what morality can reasonably demand of us.

The conflict between Williams's objection and contractualism is less stark, but here, too, he claims that it is incompatible with the nature of basic personal commitments to subordinate them to the test of what could be universalized, or what could be reasonably agreed to by everyone as a principle of conduct. Even to say, for example, that it is permissible to devote yourself to your children because you find it acceptable that everyone should favor their own children is inconsistent with the immediate and unconditional nature of your attachment to your own children. It is, in Williams's phrase, "one thought too many." Williams's resistance to the ultimate authority of the objective, impersonal standpoint is partly inspired by the more radical resistance to impartiality of Friedrich Nietzsche (1897), the great nineteenth-century German critic of Christianity and moral universalism. Contractualists like Scanlon reply that it does not denigrate the independent force of personal attachments and projects to require that they be embedded in a moral framework that sets limits to their pursuit, since the desire to live on mutually acceptable terms with others is such an important human value that it must be allowed to shape other, more personal values.

The question of the relative weight and interaction between personal motives and the claims of impartiality in determining the content of morality is a fundamental one, and it generates continuing controversy. Uncompromising utilitarians like Singer maintain that the commonsense morality that most people accept and that strictly limits their responsibility to sacrifice their own interests and aims for those in greater need is much too undemanding. If we really take seriously the undeniable fact that other people's suffering is just as bad as our own, we will have to change our lives.

In contrast, defenders of more conventional morality hold that while it is admirable to be self-sacrificing, it is also supererogatorythat is, it is morally praiseworthy but goes beyond what is morally required. They maintain that utilitarianism, by holding people morally accountable for anything that happens for which they are negatively responsible, leaves them with an unacceptably diminished control over their lives.

These disputes pose the question of whether or to what extent the content of morality should depend on a prior assessment of the human motives available to induce people to live in accordance with its requirements. There is a division of opinion between those who think morality has to rely on preexisting motives and those who think it can create new motives, by revealing specifically moral reasons we all have to act in certain ways.

Among the first group we find Hobbes, who derives morality from redirected self-interest, and Hume who derives it from a natural moral sentiment arising from sympathy for the happiness and unhappiness of others. Among the second group is Kant, who believes that the recognition that an intention cannot be universalized will itself motivate us to refrain from acting on it. He holds that the recognition of moral principles, without an antecedent desire, is enough to create a motive.

Even if morality introduces new motives, it may be important to take into account human nature, including natural self-interest and natural personal attachments, in constructing a workable moral code. The question then becomes: How can humans who are not naturally impartial live together in a way that acknowledges that objectively none is of more intrinsic value than another?


So far this entry has discussed ethical theories that offer different accounts of morality conceived of as a single systemthat is, as a set of general standards that will allow us to determine what is right or wrong for any person to do, in any society. That does not mean that the same specific actions will be morally required of everyone, since in different circumstances, different forms of conduct may satisfy or violate the same universal moral standards. For example, with overpopulation and environmental degradation, activities like deforestation and the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels, which on a small scale were once harmless, can become dangerous to future generations, and therefore wrong.

But is it also possible that the basic moral standards themselves should vary over time, or from culture to culture? The view that morality, even at the most fundamental level, is not universal but arises from local cultures or conventions that may vary is called ethical relativism. Relativism is not the view that there is a single overarching and universal moral principle, namely: "Follow the moral conventions of your culture"; nor is it the view that some other universal principle, such as utilitarianism, implies that it is always best to follow the conventions of the culture in which you find yourself. Relativism is the position that the true and ultimate source of moral standards is always a set of rules, practices, and attitudes shared by a historically situated community. While not everyone in the community will obey the rules, and some may reject them, there is often enough of a consensus about what the rules are to make it possible to identify them.

Morality, on this interpretation, is closer to etiquette or law than it is on the universalist interpretation. Naturally, there will be some overlap among moral systemsall of them can be expected to condemn murder and theft in some form, for example. But slavery, the subordination of women to their male relatives, polygamy, or homosexuality may be morally wrong in some societies and morally unquestionable in other societies, depending on the prevailing norms.

On this view it is probably a mistake to say that slavery in ancient Rome was wrong, that bullfighting in Spain is wrong, or that the subordination of women in Saudi Arabia is wrong. There is no universal, timeless standpoint from which to make these judgments. They would have to be defended from a standpoint internal to the cultures that they are about, and if that cannot be done, they should be abandoned.

That does not mean that it is impossible to criticize morally what a society does, for its conduct may sometimes violate its own moral principles. It may also sometimes be the case that there is no prevailing moral code in a particular culture, especially during periods of social transition or upheaval.

These qualifications mean that it will not always be easy for a defender of relativism to identify the standards that apply in a particular society. But relativism at least clearly rules out the attempt to appeal to universal standards. Even an internal moral critic of a societysomeone who says, against the general consensus, that slavery is morally wrongwould be mistaken if he or she were making a universal claim. The critic has to be understood as trying to change the standards or as finding an inconsistency between one part of the prevailing standards and another part.

Relativism has the consequence that we must dismiss as confused certain judgments that we are strongly inclined to make, which implicitly or explicitly appeal to universally valid or objective standards in morality. They include judgments about societies other than our own, whose standards we think are mistaken, or judgments about our own society, whose present standards we think may be mistaken and may be rightly rejected by later generations.

Relativism cannot account for the apparent fact that when an individual rejects the moral standards that prevail in a culture, either from within or from outside, he or she may not be simply applying the standards of an alternative culture, but may be appealing to deeper moral reasons, such as unfairness to some members of the society or failure to give certain interests their true weight. Such arguments point to deeper and more general standards by which local conventions can be assessed.

This is connected with the question of the motivation for being moral. If morality is based on custom, the motivation for conforming to it is in a sense shallow. To be moral is to have internalized the patterns of conduct that prevail in one's surroundings. If, however, morality is not relative but universal, this means that the motives that attach us to moral norms must be deeper, and theories of the foundations of morality must try to identify them.

Morality and Religion

There is a way of defending the universality and objectivity of moral truth different from those that have been discussed so far. That is to claim that moral standards are laid down by divine command.

If this means that nothing would be right or wrong unless God declared it to be sothat "if God does not exist, everything is permitted"then it is not a plausible view. Even if God does command that we not kill, lie, steal, and so on, it seems more plausible to hold that he forbids those things because they are wrong, not that they are wrong because he forbids them. (A polytheistic version of this point is made in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro.)

Though we can understand how divine command might establish specific requirements like dietary restrictions or forms of worshipwhere we are obliged to follow them simply out of obediencethe ordinary standards of morality seem different: They seem to depend on the intrinsic features and effects of certain kinds of conduct rather than on something external to them. We can understand what is wrong with murder without reference to God.

On the other hand, it may be possible to preserve a version of the divine command theory by referring to the characteristics of God, as all-knowing, all-good, and loving the world and his creatures. The rules that a divine being enjoins people to obey might in that case be said to be correct in virtue of the features of God's nature that lead him to choose those rules. But it also means that he chooses them for characteristics that themselves make them correct and that he could not have commanded a different morality.

Religion is sometimes thought to play another role, as the guarantor of an incentive to be moral through divine punishment and reward in an afterlife. The afterlife also serves a direct moral purpose in allowing us to hope that the world is not fundamentally unjust and that the virtuous will be rewarded, however much they may have suffered on this earth.

However, most modern moral philosophy has not depended on religion, but has tried to interpret ethics in secular terms. Those who believe that God commands our adherence to moral standards usually hold that we use our independent understanding of those standards in forming our idea of God's will. An exception is John Locke (1690), for whom the assumption that God gave the earth to human beings in common plays an important role in moral and political theory.

Ethics, Politics, and Law

One of the main applications of moral theory is to evaluate political and social institutionsinstitutions like representative democracy or the market economyas well as the more specific actions of government. But there are two different ways of thinking about politics from a moral point of view.

The first way is to start by identifying moral standards that apply to everything, and then to figure out what they imply for the special and complex case of political institutions and political life. This is the method favored both by utilitarianism and by the radical form of individual rights theory called libertarianism. Utilitarianism holds that the right way to evaluate anything, from an individual action to a form of government, is by reference to the value of its overall consequences for the total welfare of all persons, impartially considered. Libertarianism, on the other hand, determines the rightness or wrongness of individual actions and social institutions alike solely by reference to whether they violate or protect the natural rights of individuals not to be harmed, to exercise their freedom, and to acquire and transfer property. Because these theories hold that a single moral standard governs everything from individual conduct to the design of large social institutions, they are sometimes known as monist theories.

By contrast, other theories (sometimes called dualistthe terms are due to Liam Murphy [1999]) hold that ethics is more complicated than this and that different standards are appropriate for the regulation of different kinds of thing. According to this second approach it is a mistake to assume that the moral evaluation of institutions should derive from the same norms that govern individual conduct.

An important example of the dualist approach is Rawls's (1971) theory of justice. Rawls maintains that while private individuals should be free to pursue their own aims in life and favor their own and their families' economic interests, the basic institutions of a society must be much more impartial toward the interests of all its members. The social structure should be designed with the aim of providing equality of opportunity for all, and with the aim of reducing social and economic inequality by raising the condition of the worst-off class as much as possible. These strongly egalitarian values, according to Rawls, apply not to the personal interactions of individuals, but to the design of the common institutions, imposed and sustained by state power, that provide the unchosen public framework for their private lives.

Whether one is a monist or a dualist, politics and law are important subjects for ethical theory. Politics poses in the starkest way questions about how to combine the conflicting interests of many different people who are affected by an institution, law, or policy. It poses questions about the relations between different valuesthe value of life, of liberty, of prosperity, and of freedom from coercion and violation of different kinds. It poses crucial questions about the possibility of outweighing harms to some by aggregate benefits to others.

The fundamental division between consequentialist and contractualist approaches shows up here. Consequentialists will not take the protection of individual rights as basic, but will regard it as an instrumental means for the promotion of the general welfare. Contractualists, by contrast, will find reasons to limit the power of the state over the individual in a separate and untradeable concern for each individual's autonomy and inviolability, regarded not merely as an element in the general welfare whose total is to be maximized.

Followers of Hobbes will hold that the only legitimate ground for state action is the provision of goods that are in the collective self-interest of all the citizenry, such as police protection, defense, economic stability, and public health. Utilitarians, on the contrary, will also favor policies that increase the total welfare, even if it means redistributing resources from the rich to the poor. Contractarians will give priority to the protection of individual rights, securing equal opportunity, and raising the social minimum. Libertarians will favor the minimum of government needed to keep the peace, protect individual rights, and secure private property. Therefore, many familiar political disagreements have a moral dimension and require that we ask how much and what kind of consideration we owe to the interests of our fellow citizens through our common institutions.

The distinction between monist and dualist theories comes up again when we ask whether the same principles that govern the moral acceptability of political institutions inside existing states should also be applied to our relations to people in other societies, indeed to the world as a whole. If our most fundamental moral duties to everyone are the same, then the division of the world into separate societies with special responsibility for their members is a historically understandable contingency, but it may or may not be morally acceptable. On the other hand, moral standards for the world as a whole may be different from those appropriate within a particular society. The question of the moral evaluation of the overall world order is a vital and wide open question.

Boundaries of the Moral Community

This entry has been discussing moral standards as if they concerned our relations to other human beings, present and future. But there are other candidates for moral consideration: most notably, other sentient creatures who are not members of our species and human organisms not yet bornembryos and fetuses. We can leave aside the value of plants and other parts of nature because it seems separate from morality, just as aesthetic value seems to be in a different category. Morality is especially concerned with how we treat one another, but it probably goes beyond this to include our treatment of beings or creatures that are sufficiently like us in relevant respects.

The first question is whether sentience itselfthe capacity to have conscious experience and to feel pleasure and painis sufficient to bring a creature under the protection of morality. On the utilitarian theory the answer is a clear yes. Pleasure is good and pain is bad, wherever they are found, so it is right to promote the first and avoid the second in all sentient creatures.

It may be difficult to compare the quantity, quality, and value of pleasures and pains across different species, so it is not always easy to calculate what actions or policies would maximize overall utility. There may also be, in some versions of utilitarianism, forms of human pleasure or happiness that are not available to other animals, and whose value counts heavily in calculating the total to be maximized. That is maintained by John Stuart Mill in the theory of higher and lower pleasures. But many utilitarians maintain that the widely prevalent treatment of animals in factory farming and slaughter for food, as well as in much scientific experimentation, is morally unacceptable.

It is doubtful that nonhuman creatures could be excluded from moral consideration entirely, except by an ethical theory based entirely on self-interest. Since other creatures do not threaten us and cannot enter into cooperative engagements with us, we have no reasons of self-interest to adopt ways of living at peace with them.

If we accept an other-regarding consequentialist basis for ethics, animals will certainly be included under its protection, but there may be different requirements on our treatment of animals from those on our treatment of people. Avoidance of suffering is likely to be the main thing, and limits on killing or on infringement of liberty will probably depend on whether they lessen suffering.

It is less clear how contractarian theories can handle the moral status of creatures who cannot be imagined as participants even in a hypothetical agreement on standards of conduct. But perhaps this could be done through some system of imaginary representation of their interests (Scanlon [1998] discusses this issue).

The moral status of unborn humans is a different question. If we separate it from religious doctrine about when the soul enters the body, it becomes a question about whether the potential to develop into a fully conscious human being confers on an embryo or fetus some part of the moral protection due to such a being after it is born. Answers range from the position that the embryo has all the moral rights of an infant, specifically the right not to be killed, from the time of conception, when its genetic constitution is determined, to the position that it has no moral claims before the child is born alive and may therefore be disposed of at the discretion of the pregnant woman. In between are views that as the fetus develops toward viability it becomes gradually more and more difficult to justify interrupting the pregnancy deliberatelythat is, the reasons for doing so have to be progressively stronger.

The difficulty of these boundary questions reveals uncertainty about the true foundations of ethics, but that is not surprising. Human morality is a constantly developing system of norms, and its philosophical investigation by ethical theory is an indispensable part of the process.

See also Applied Ethics; Consequentialism; Decision Theory; Deontological Ethics; Divine Command Theories of Ethics; Ethics, History of; Game Theory; Kantian Ethics; Metaethics; Teleological Ethics; Utilitarianism; Value and Valuation; Virtue Ethics.


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Thomas Nagel (2005)


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Linda Pastan 1981

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

“Ethics” appears in Linda Pastan’s sixth volume of poetry, Waiting for My Life (1981), a title that hints at the tensions for which the New York-born poet is best known: the challenges of living in that “waiting” place between the magic and the tedium of the ordinary; between the artistic and the domestic life; between the rewards and the losses of aging and death. A kind of “aesthetic ethic” itself emerges from the body of her poems, one proclaiming that simple language and images of the ordinary are especially capable of bearing mystery and of resisting easy answers.

“Ethics” itself embodies this resistance. The poem takes shape first in a memory from school days and is then bridged, through images of frames and fire, to an understanding acquired in the poet’s older years. The question the ethics teacher poses “so many years ago” is unanswerable partly because it is not “real”; the students answer it “half-heartedly,” at best. Having posed a hypothetical fire in a museum, the teacher wants the students to make a clear choice, between saving “a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow.” The surprising answer for the poet arrives years later, in a “real museum,” as the poet stands “before a real Rembrandt.”

Several readers have noted Pastan’s similarity to the nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson. Both share an ability to express complexity and mystery in the language of domestic life. However, unlike Dickinson, Pastan has struggled with the issues of raising children and being married. Pastan is a poet of the home even while she is clearly in the world. “Meditation by the Stove” shows she has trained her eye on the realities of her own life:

… I have banked the fires of my body
into a small domestic flame for others
to warm their hands on for a while.

However, she has also looked up and out of her home into the “darkness of newsprint.” In “Libation, 1966,” the sacrifice of young men to the Vietnam War reminds her of cruel, ancient rituals:

They dance as delicately
as any bull boy
with bayonet,
in a green maze,
under a sky as hot as Crete.

The ethics of being an artist in the world is of concern to Pastan, a world where what one “saves” is crucial, but not simple.

Author Biography

Pastan was born in New York, New York, on May 27, 1932, the only child of Jacob and Bess Schwartz Olenik. A melancholy poem about her parents, “Something about the Trees,” records Pastan’s childlike faith that her father would “always be the surgeon,” her mother, “the perfect surgeon’s wife,” and that “they both would live forever.” She began writing, she says, around age ten or eleven: “As a very lonely only child, reading and writing was my way of being part of the world.” The world of her poems is a peopled world, inhabited by parents, grandparents, husband, children, and lovers. It is also inhabited by mythic figures—Eve, Adam, and Noah, Odysseus, Penelope, Circe, and Achilles. These people, mythic and real, are often connected by Pastan’s ability to tell stories of loss and change. They are also connected through metaphors from ordinary times and common places, images of “ordinary weather / blurring the landscape / between that time and this.” Pastan writes many of the poems in Waiting for My Life, including “Ethics,” from this landscape of “between”—between past and present, youth and age, home and world. Metaphors from kitchens, closets, gardens, and porches inform the sense that Pastan’s life is rooted in the home, but that home is not necessarily a safe haven:

I tell you household gods
are jealous gods.
They will cover your windowsills
with the dust of sunsets;
they will poison your secret wells
with longing. (“Who Is It Accuses Us?”)

The “between” places are at once familiar and strange, irreducible, and resistant to cliche.

The longing for a life of creative passion and fulfillment in the midst of domestic demands is palpable in Waiting for My Life. “There are poems / that are never written,” laments one poem in the book, but the ones that fill this volume and eleven other books counter the claim that her art has truly had to wait. In fact, Pastan has been the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, beginning with the Mademoiselle poetry contest, which she won during her senior year at Radcliffe. Honors have followed nearly all of her major publications, including the De Castagnola Award in 1978 for The Five Stages of Grief, an American Book Award poetry nomination in 1983 for PM/AM, Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize in 1985, Prairie Schooner’s Virginia Faulkner award, a Pushcart prize, and appointment as the poet laureate (1991-1995) of Maryland, the state where she currently lives.

Pastan’s gift was recognized early. When she was a senior in high school, one of her poems was chosen to be printed on the back of the graduation program. She recalls that her English teacher tried to make editorial suggestions and persuade her that a tree couldn’t have both “antlered branches” and “summer-scented fingers.” But the young poet refused to change a word. “My infatuation with metaphor has remained with me, though of course, my teacher was absolutely right,” admits Pastan today. Her childhood love of reading and writing was nurtured at Radcliffe where she was an English major, and “constantly amazed to be given college credits for what I would have chosen to read anyway.” She claims no particular influence on her writing, rather that her wide reading from childhood on has given her “the models of great poetry to love and to strive towards.”

Linda Olenik married Ira Pastan, a molecular biologist, in 1953, a year before she finished her degree at Radcliffe. She temporarily “relinquished” her writing, Pastan tells Michael Kernan of the Washington Post, for the “whole ’50s thing, kids and the clean floor bit.” Yet, she confesses, “I was unhappy because I knew what I should be doing.” Once her children reached school age, Pastan began to devote her “free” hours and energy again to poetry. Soon she found that family, marriage, and home had put their indelible mark on her material, and that they had the power to shape her work “by allowing themselves, albeit reluctantly, to be subjects of my poems.” The Pastan children, Stephen, Peter, and Rachel, often show up in poems that express with both tenderness and anguish the struggle between raising children and tending to one’s art. Pastan established the habit in those years of rising earlier than the rest of the household to write, and often stayed up late to draft or revise, hence the title of one book, PM/AM. For twenty years, she was a teacher at the renowned Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Vermont. Being on staff at Bread Loaf “gave me a feeling of belonging to the community of writers,” says Pastan. “And I loved teaching for just twelve days a year. I could enter the class with enthusiasm and leave it before I became weary.” Pastan continues to write from her home in Potomac, Maryland. Her latest volume is Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998.

Poem Text

In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
If there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many                    5
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face          10
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews          15
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,         20
darker even than winter—the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.                25

Poem Summary

Lines: 1-2

“Ethics” begins with the memory of an ethics class that Pastan herself attended. The focus of this memory is a question the teacher posed, and the rest of the poem is given to unfolding its answer. The poem’s language is specific. The question was asked, not simply every “year,” but “every fall,” and the image of autumn also unfolds in important ways as the poem proceeds.

Lines: 3-6

In these lines, the question is put forth as the poet recalls it, in concrete, straightforward language that gives the past a sense of immediacy. It is a typical “values clarification” question, designed to stir a conversation about the relative value of life and art: which is of greater worth in “saving,” a famous painting or an old woman? The choice is obviously difficult and contains the seeds of several large ethical issues. However, the students are not engaged. So, instead of providing their response, the poem instead suggests their restless unreadiness to answer with any sort of conviction.

Lines: 7-9

A clear sense of the students’ apathy is extended in these lines. As the poet remembers it, neither art nor old age seemed particularly worth their passion or time. Choosing life one year and art the next has little to do with authentic engagement in the question.

Lines: 10-12

A sudden shift from the external classroom scene to the poet’s private thoughts occurs in lines 9 and 10. The poet lets the reader into her imagination of that hypothetical old woman, who is no longer anonymous; she has “borrowed my grandmother’s face.” The kitchen is the site of many images, if not whole poems, in Pastan’s corpus. Here, the grandmother leaves “her usual kitchen” in the poet’s internal reverie, and is relocated in a vague, rather unappealing museum. Leaving the “usual” is clearly uncomfortable for the old woman; she can only “wander” around the museum. This interior picture shows how unacquainted the young “Linda” really is with both art and old age. In her mind, the two prongs of the question are still determined by stereotypes, by the “usual.”

Lines: 13-16

At the middle of the poem another shift occurs, from inside back to outside, as the poet herself actually replies to the teacher’s question. The “usual” gap between professor and student is dramatically rendered in these spare lines. The poet-student makes a sophomoric suggestion that the old woman should “decide herself.” In rather pedantic language, the teacher replies to the class that this response is an evasion of moral responsibility, that “Linda ... eschews” its burdens. Line 15 leaves little doubt that the poem’s point of view and experience are Pastan’s own.

Lines: 17-19

With line 17, the poem is lodged no longer in the past, but in the here and now. The verb tense is simple present, and the “every fall” of past years has become “this fall.” The hypothetical museum and painting have vanished, and in its place is a “real Rembrandt” in a “real museum.” However, this view is now framed through the eyes of someone “nearly” an old woman herself, and autumn obviously means more than calendar time. It is the season of her life.

Lines: 20-23

However, lest the correspondence between autumn and aging devolve into a cliche? the poet observes that the colors she sees in the painting are actually “darker than autumn.” In fact, they are “darker even than winter,” the darkest of seasons. The poet is seeing both painting and experience with the inner eye, led by the painting’s radiant darkness to a kind of mystical vision. In the process, the “browns of earth” become much more than paint and color. In an image echoing the fire that frames the teacher’s question, those elements “burn” beyond the frame of the Rembrandt to impart

Media Adaptations

  • The Cortland Review, an Online Literary Magazine includes a new poem by Pastan, “The New Dog,” in its May 1999 issue.The Cortland Review features poetry, fiction, and essays, and is issued monthly in both text and audio format at
  • Pastan’s poetry also appears online at several other sites, including Poetry Daily,, and Atlantic Unbound, Atlantic Monthly’s online site, featuring Pastan and many other poets reading their own work in RealAudio. See
  • Reader reviews of Carnival Evening can be found through the large online bookseller, Unlike book reviews published in literary journals and magazines, Amazon’s short “reviews” are unsolicited and quite varied.
  • Watershed Tapes recorded Pastan in 1986 reading poems about family life from several volumes of her work. The audiocassette tape, Mosaic, is available from The Writer’s Center. For listings and ordering information on the Web, go to

a knowledge unattainable during the poet’s restless youth.

Lines: 24-25

The last two lines tell us what the poet has learned, and it appears to be larger than “ethics,” larger, at least, than the academic question posed by the teacher. It is not unusual for a mystical experience to impart a sense of unity where once there was division. Thus, what the poet knows, with a knowledge greater than either her senses or reason can provide, is that there is “almost” oneness among “woman / and painting and season.” This mysterious unity makes rescue or salvation almost irrelevant. Even so, that subtle word “almost” keeps such knowledge away from any easy absolute, even that of “oneness.” Neither woman nor painting nor season loses the force of their particular existence, to which the poet, through language, must be responsible. Therein lies the “ethics” of the poem.



Besides being a memoir and a reflection on art, this poem is the story of its title, “Ethics,” in the life of one woman. It not only tells a story about the passage from youth to old age, but also about a maturing morality that perceives the unity among all things and takes responsibility for the “real.” To put it in the language of the poem, it is about making the passage from “half-hearted” and “half imagined” to an ethical landscape that has features that are “almost one.”

At the beginning of the poem, the poet-speaker and her classmates are equipped with partial knowledge, producing their “half-hearted” response. The typical strategy of a philosophy teacher is to introduce students to a variety of moral theories and posit situations that test their implications. An ethics class might examine the conduct of an individual or group in light of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy of innate goodness, for example, or its opposite, in the writing of Thomas Hobbes, who declared the human life is “short, brutish, and nasty.” They might explore the “instrumentalism” of John Dewey, who held that truth is a tool for solving problems, and therefore “truth” changes as the problems change. Such moral relativism could be contrasted easily with Plato’s idealism, an understanding of virtue as inseparable from knowledge and happiness, and rooted ultimately in an absolute good. “Every year” this ethics teacher offers the same moral dilemma, and presumably looks for an increasing sophistication in the students’ response.

However, as the poem proceeds, we learn that such an outcome is not feasible due to the apparent apathy of the young people, not only toward “pictures” and “old age,” but more fundamentally, for the question itself. For reasons the poem refuses to judge, the heart and the imagination come to class incomplete. It takes the very “real,” personal experience of aging, and the contemplation of a “real” Rembrandt to bring the poem’s speaker, Pastan herself, to a knowledge of wholeness, which both includes and surpasses moral theories and systems. The repeated use of the word “real” is no accident in the latter part of the poem, as “real” becomes a temporary antonym, or opposite, for “half.” The “real” is whole and complete. It embodies an inseparable totality of thought and experience, mind and body. The implications of the last line are not that the “real” lies beyond human responsibility, only that its “salvation” is beyond those still “restless on hard chairs.”

Art and Experience

Pastan’s interest in art shines through her work. In fact, the question that is central to “Ethics” concerns the value of a piece of art in relation to human life. Pastan’s passion for the arts influenced her writing throughout her career. Ten years after the publication of “Ethics,” Pastan began an essay with a group of painters who were engaged in self-portraiture—Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Diego Velasquez, and Jan Vermeer. At that time, she was quoted as saying, “This has been a year of looking at pictures for me,” confessing that her “obsession” with artists’ self-portraits is akin to her interest in “writers writing about writing.”

Whether it is poetry, painting, music, sculpture, or dance, there is hardly an art form of any place or time that has not drawn attention to its own materials, making, and reception. As a particularly good example of this aesthetic “self-reference,” Pastan points to Picasso’s The Painter and His Model, wherein Picasso “almost as nude as the model herself, is at his easel hard at work.” Her own poem “Ars Poetica” draws attention to the process of writing a poem through a series of surprising metaphors. In Pastan’s experience, the Muse is not the elusive goddess of many cliches, but more often “just / a moth”; writing is a battle whose warhorse “would rather be / head down, grazing”; and a poem should be offered, finally, as “a chair / on which you’ve draped a coat / that will fit anyone.”

Within the body of modern poetry, examples abound of poets, like Pastan, who have looked to painters, sculptors, and musicians for guiding both the depths and surfaces of their own aesthetic. The work of poets Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams pays homage to the painter Paul Cezanne, that of Langston Hughes to jazz-man Charlie Parker, and Rainer Maria Rilke to the sculptor Rodin. Likewise, Pastan’s garden and kitchen are not the only sites of inspiration; there are also the landscapes of feeling she enters standing before Rembrandts, Rousseaus, and Magrittes. Her focus on “woman / and painting and season” is not unique to “Ethics.”

As early as 1975, there is poetic evidence that Pastan had been looking at pictures in “real” museums, for her work is filled with references to paintings. Masaccio’s fresco Expulsion from the Garden of Eden provides the loci for reflection and memory that becomes the poem “Fresco.” Much like “Ethics,” “Fresco” is about the contrast between knowledge learned at school and knowledge gained from life experience. In both cases, a “real” work of art provides the pivot point. In “Fresco,” Eve loses her innocence and awakens to the painful recognition that both good and evil, Abel and Cain, will be nourished at her breasts.

In Pastan’s most recent writing, there are numerous art-inspired poems which, like “Fresco,” mark a subtle, but certain shift from the “usual” kitchen of earlier work. Gustave Courbet’s Still Life with Apples and Pomegranate makes the poet grieve for her father. “Le Sens de la Nuit,” named after a Magritte oil painting, explores the meaning of night. “Still Life” and “Nature Morte,” titles that come from a particular genre of painting, lament that both Eden and the “actual” have been lost somehow, “cut off / at the stem or wrenched / from the earth.” Her most recent collection, Carnival Evening, takes its title from an oil painting by Henri Rousseau.

Like Picasso, Pastan engages in artistic self-portraiture in “Woman Holding a Balance.” In the process of describing a Vermeer painting, the poem draws attention to the essential character of Pastan’s own work:

It is really the mystery
of the ordinary
we’re looking at—the way
Vermeer has sanctified
the same light that enters
our own grimed windows
each morning, touching
a cheek, the fold
of a dress, a jewelry box
with perfect justice.

In another recent poem, “Lost Luggage,” the theme of “waiting for my life” is once again taken up, this time inside a museum where the aging poet is “in transit” from one landscape to another. The poem eventually confesses that the “real” woman behind the “tourist” disguise is “merely myself” and the art she would lose herself in becomes, instead, the mysterious agent of redemption:

… ghosts clothed in tempera
follow me everywhere,
as if art itself were a purpling shadow
whose territory I must step back into,
a place where I can hide myself
over and over again, where what is lost
may be found, though always
in another language and untranslatable.

Topics for Further Study

  • Choose a painting by Rembrandt or another well-known artist and trace the path of its acquisitions, from studio to museum, private collector, or gallery, in as much detail as possible. What is its estimated worth today?
  • As a student “feeling clever,” Pastan posed the question, “why not let the woman decide herself?” in response to the question of whether an elderly woman or a Rembrandt painting should be saved in a museum fire. Render the old woman’s decision-making in the form of a dramatic monologue, poem, short story, or song.
  • Hold a debate using the question posed by the teacher in “Ethics” (“If there were a fire in a museum / which would you save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow?”). Prepare by becoming acquainted with several moral philosophies of famous philosophers, such as Plato, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Dewey.
  • Write a story based on your own encounter with an ethical dilemma. Let the story reveal the processes involved in seeking a resolution, whether it is found or not.

The conviction behind Pastan’s art is that the ordinary is almost always extraordinary, that behind the familiar lies an unnamable terrain, and there “earth’s most radiant elements burn / through the canvas.”


“Ethics” is written in the form called “free verse,” which depends on images and the natural rhythms of speech for its expression, not on meter or rhyme. Many modern and contemporary American poets in the last two centuries have written in free verse, revealing the range of its powers in the relative absence of “formal” patterns. Walt Whitman, for example, drew upon the “music” inherent in free verse, Robert Frost explored its capacity for drama, and William Carlos Williams explored the power of the image to provide meaning and design.

Pastan’s free verse poem tells a story about knowledge, beginning in a classroom in one kind of institution, and ending in another, a museum. However, the experience is not expressed academically or in institutional jargon. Most of the poem-story is told in the simple language, rhythm, and tone of a conversation. Pastan’s diction, or word choice, comes from accessible, everyday language. The first person pronouns I, we, my, and our increase the sense of intimacy by drawing the reader-listener into the poet’s experience. There are no stanza breaks, and the line breaks follow a natural breathing or pausing pattern. Punctuation is sparse, increasing the sense that this memoir is being spoken sotto voce to a listener close-by. Only the essential commas are retained, and there are no quotation marks to set off the spoken lines. Punctuation in a poem is analogous to the rhythmic markings and rests in music. Thus, if this poem were to be sung, it would probably be marked rubato or “freely.”

Writers of free verse often create design in their poems through patterns of images. The images of fire and autumn in “Ethics” frame the speaker’s growth of conscience and wisdom—from a hypothesized fire to a real Rembrandt aflame with the elemental power of art, from a routine September question to the darkening autumn of age. Pastan’s poem derives much of its vitality from the inflections of these images.

Historical Context

“Ethics” was published in the early 1980s, when the U.S. economy experienced a decided upturn after two decades of civil unrest and an uncertain position in the global market. Perhaps it is no accident that an economics of worth is what drives the poem’s ethical question, “which would you save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many years left anyhow?” When Republican Ronald Reagan became President in 1980, the country was ripe for economic reform. The former actor’s plan, later dubbed “Reaganomics,” involved drastic cuts in taxes and social spending, and resulted for a while in steep declines in interest and inflation rates, and the appearance of millions of new jobs.

In retrospect, however, that economic prosperity benefited only a few. The wealthiest five percent of Americans celebrated twenty percent gains, while three-fifths of the population, at the lower end of the economic scale, watched their income fall by nearly eight percent. Child poverty and homelessness increased exponentially. Not until October 19, 1987, the date of the biggest stock market crash on record, did Wall Street end its eight-year-long “party.” The nation’s apparent prosperity had thinly veiled its enormous trade and federal budget deficits, and there were signs that inflation and high interest rates were making a comeback. These trends were blamed for “Black Monday,” as it was called, when total share values plunged half a trillion dollars. Some 37, 000 Wall Street employees were laid off in its wake, and it wasn’t until the end of the decade that the state of the U.S. economy improved.

Meanwhile, those who rose high on the wheel of fortune in those years composed lives and “lifestyles” that have given history permission to call the 1980s the “the decade of greed,” inhabited by the “me generation.” Where “hippies” had been a prevailing stereotype of the radicalized sixties and early seventies, the “yuppies,” or “young urban professionals,” of the eighties were characterized by their liberal spending on clothes, entertainment, travel, transportation, fitness, and housing. While poverty among the nation’s children rose alarmingly, one in every five, and increasing numbers of homeless men, women, and children found shelter under bridges in cardboard lean-tos, many of the nation’s upper-middle class, according to the stereotype, sat in chic cafes debating where to spend their “discretionary income.”

The world of entertainment and sports were clearly among the benefactors of such prosperity. Steven Spielberg’s E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial made movie history in 1982 when it grossed more than a billion dollars. By 1987, the sports industry had garnered an unprecedented 1.1 percent of the nation’s gross national product (GNP). The fine arts also felt the results of new spending trends. Not to be outdone by the sorts of world records being achieved in other cultural arenas, brokers and collectors of fine art set the bars for purchases ever higher: a Picasso that sold in 1981 for $5.8 million was sold nine years later for nine times that amount. Van Gogh’s Irises achieved fame overnight in 1987 when it sold for the highest price ever paid for a work of art, $53.9 million.

It is in the context of this “prosperity phenomenon” that “Ethics” resonates beyond Pastan’s story

Compare & Contrast

  • 1979: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City experiences its first theft in the museum’s 110-year-old history on February 9 when an ancient Greek marble head valued at a quarter of a million dollars is stolen.

    1988: Exactly nine years later, on February 9, two valuable Fra Angelico paintings are among the works stolen from a gallery in New York’s wealthy Upper East Side, in the city’s largest single art theft to date. Eighteen paintings and ten drawings valued at a total of $6 million are taken from the Colnaghi Ltd. gallery.
    1990: The night of March 18, thieves enter Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and make off with $300 million worth of art, including three paintings by Rembrandt, five by Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, and the most valuable, The Concert, by Jan Vermeer. None of the paintings has been returned.
    1997: In December, the Department of Justice and the FBI issue a statement regarding reports that certain individuals could broker the return of art stolen in March of 1990 from the Gardner Museum. The Department denies that any such reports are legitimate, and that photographs and paint chips purported to be that of the stolen paintings are carefully analyzed by museum officials and deemed fraudulent.
    1999: On July 13, the night before Bastille Day, thieves steal Rembrandt’s Child with Soap Bubble, worth unspecified millions, from a municipal museum in the Toulon region of France.
    Today: A $5 million reward is still being offered for the safe return of the art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

  • 1791: The nation’s first internal revenue law requires a tax on distilled spirits, at 20 to 30 cents per gallon. The legislatures of North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland pass official resolutions of disapproval.

    1861: Four months after the Civil War begins, Congress adopts an income tax law to help finance the war. Incomes from $600 to $10, 000 are taxed at 3 percent, and those $10, 000 and above, at 5 percent.
    1916: The federal income tax is ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
    1960: U.S. taxpayers pay federal, state, and local taxes worth 25 percent of their earnings.
    1969: On December 22, Congress passes a far-reaching tax reform bill that removes 9 million of the nation’s poor from its income tax rolls. The bill draws criticism that it ultimately aids the rich, not the poor.
    1981: Shortly after his election, President Ronald Reagan proposes a 10 percent income tax cut in each of the next three years. The plan is modified by Congress to begin with a 5 percent cut the first year.
    1995: An average lawyer’s income is $1, 116 per week. A child care worker makes an average of $158 per week.

and its personal conclusions. The poem is not only about growing older and wiser about some things; it is also about the necessity of becoming dis-illusioned. The 1980s in the United States left in its wake an increasingly polarized economy, proving it an illusion that any one strategy, economic or otherwise, can unlock the American dream for all. To put it in the intellectual language of the decade, the American dream itself is being “deconstructed” along with its illusions of privilege and power. In the terms of “Ethics,” it is an illusion that the worth of a life can be pitted, with any validity, against the worth of a famous painting. Pastan’s poem suggests that a “real” ethics can never be rooted in anything but a “real” life in the world, that part of the task of being human is to become disillusioned without growing cynical, awakened to what is both worth saving and “all beyond saving.”

Critical Overview

Beyond reviews of her books, there is relatively little criticism of Pastan’s poetry, despite the fact that she has been widely and steadily published for thirty years, and has received numerous awards. In his review of PM/AM: New and Selected Poems(1983), critic Peter Stitt of The Georgia Review may have suggested the simplest reason for this phenomenon: “Pastan does not write about ideas nor about things.”

Pastan writes about people—their bodies and their minds—and because of the nature of her centeredness, she offers less for critics to talk about; these poems are more readily accessible to the reader. Pastan is “accessible” because she writes about people going about their “dailiness,” a subject that is presumably uninteresting to the average critic. Stitt’s comment (and his review in general) may ultimately have more to say about the perceived difference between “reader” and “critic” than it does about the substance of Pastan’s poetry.

The content of Pastan’s poetry is frequently concerned with the life of a woman trying to be an artist amid the demands of home and family. Feminist critic Sandra Gilbert is generally unsympathetic and, in an article for Parnassus: Poetry in Review, finds the author of Waiting for My Life to be a poet not only of the “melody of the quotidian” but of its “malady.” Writing in Washington Post Book World, Mary Jo Salter finds Pastan’s poems “sometimes simple to a fault.” Amidst these criticisms, Gilbert discovers Pastan’s strength in those moments when, like Emily Dickinson, “this artist of dailiness stresses the mystery of the ordinary.” Fellow poet Dave Smith, writing in American Poetry Review, goes as far as to suggest that “Dickinson is Pastan’s ghost,” and celebrates her ability to depict “those moments spent at windows in kitchens or gardens where we are astonished at the speed and movement that is all the not-us.”

Smith and others—L. M. Rosenberg, Edward Morin, Hugh Seidman—stress that as Pastan’s work has matured, the “low heat” she has banked “into a small domestic flame for others” has become, in Smith’s words, “a radiant heat nonetheless.” Donna Seaman, a reviewer for the American Library Association, finds Eve, not Emily Dickinson, Pastan’s alter ego in her most recent collection Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998. New poems and old from nine previous volumes, culminate, says Seaman, in a portrait of domesticity that is “both a temple and a prison,” an Eden which Eve herself likely found “too confining, too orderly.” Pastan’s more mature art and its resistance to cliche has made earlier charges of her poetry being too “simple” more difficult to sustain.


Alice Van Wart

Alice Van Wart teaches literature and writing in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Toronto. She has published two books of poetry and has written articles on modern and contemporary literature. In the following essay, Van Wart discusses the mode in which Pastan writes, examines the oppositional nature of the poem, and discusses the moral issues presented in “Ethics.”

Pastan received her first honor for a poem while she was a student at Radcliffe College in 1954 by winning the Mademoiselle poetry contest. Sylvia Path was the runner up. Though Pastan went on in school and received an M.A. from Brandeis University in 1957, she married young and had three children. Like many other women of her generation, who put aside their aspirations for domestic life, Pastan set aside her writing to concentrate on her children and home. Yet the desire to write remained, and eventually she returned to it, publishing in 1971 A Perfect Circle of Sun, the first of her many collections of poetry.

Pastan writes in what is referred to as the confessional mode, but unlike the more well-known confessional poets, her contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Pastan uses the personal not only to understand the self, but also as a means to understanding the nature of the world around her. Pastan’s poetry is rooted in the common; it is filled with humor, passion, delight, despair, rebellion, and hope. As a woman who has lived the multiple roles placed on women, she grapples with the issues facing contemporary women, specifically the problems associated with love and domestic life. The war between desire and dealing with daily issues permeates her work as a common theme. It is, however, in the world of the everyday where she finds the small miracles in life and learns the nature of humanity.

Published in her fourth collection Waiting for My Life (1981), “Ethics” is a poem that is generally representative of much contemporary free verse. Told from a first person point of view in a

What Do I Read Next?

  • The opening poem of Barbara Ras’s Bite Every Sorrow argues that “you can’t have it all,” contrary to the myth, spawned by the American dream, that you can. However, says the poem, which is titled “You Can’t Have It All,” you can have “the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands / gloved with green,” as well as a host of other gifts the world freely gives: “You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd, / but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump, how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards, / until you learn about love, about sweet surrender.” Though not yet as well known as Pastan, Barbara Ras has been spoken of as a poet who “accurately captures the tug of war between the quotidian and the miraculous.” Bite Every Sorrow won the prestigious Walt Whitman Award in 1997 for a first book of poems.
  • Pastan’s most recent collection, Carnival Evening, spans thirty years of the poet’s career, and contains both new poems and a selection from nine previous volumes. If one reads through Carnival Evening chronologically, Pastan’s evolving skill with metaphor and her changing preoccupations with art, marriage, family, and aging become apparent.
  • One could argue that Pastan’s poetry is “confessional” in its treatment of personal, often private, emotions and situations. “Confessional poetry” emerged as a genre of American contemporary poetry in the mid-1950s through the work of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, and is embodied today in the poems of Sharon Olds and others. The poems in Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) and Life Studies (1959) are peopled with family members and poets, both living and dead, whose lives and words provide a terrain for the self to be revealed, often painfully.
  • In some ways, Pastan has answered the imperative in A Room of One’s Own (1929) that a woman of “genius” must have the means to exercise her gift. Virginia Woolf’s landmark “feminist” essay urges that a woman must have “a room of her own,” the necessary time, privacy, and freedom from financial concerns to satisfy the call of her art. Woolf believed that men and women experience life quite differently, and that the form of their artistic expression, therefore, must also differ. To put it in Woolf’s writerly terms, a woman’s “sentences” will reflect the unique shape of her experience. Many of Pastan’s poems reveal the tensions in finding such a “room,” even while they provide examples of “sentences” distinctly feminine in both form and content.
  • In Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko has assembled a collage of stories, poems, and photographs that provide a portrait of Laguna Indian life, and specifically, that of several generations of her own family. Native American legend and voices from the land are woven seamlessly into this “family album.” Silko’s book, published the same year as Pastan’s Waiting for My Life (1981), provides a glimpse into the “extraordinary ordinary” life of the Laguna people in this century.

colloquial idiom and conversational tone, the poet relates a personal experience from the past that takes on new significance in the present. It is also typical of Pastan’s poetry in that the poem works around opposed elements. Written in a simple language, devoid of figurative language, the poem tells a story in two parts, the second part drawing meaning from the first. Though there are no stanza breaks, the poem works through the opposition of its two parts, defined as clear rhetorical units, parallelism, repetition, and irony to suggest that it is beyond the ability of children to determine complex moral issues.

The poem’s title points to its central concern— ethics. What is meant by ethics is a general system of moral principles, the study of which is the branch of philosophy concerned with right and wrong of

“The final lines of the poem evoke a mature awareness on the part of the poet. They suggest a wisdom and a comprehension that only comes with age.”

certain actions and behavior. A system of ethical or moral behavior is essential to a civilized society, and we learn early through instruction many of its moral precepts. However, in the course of life people find themselves in situations in which they must decide for themselves what is the right way to act or the right choice to make. It is an individual’s responsibility to make the right choice and to be accountable for that choice. A part of growing up is learning how to make the right choices.

In Pastan’s poem “Ethics” the poet, while visiting a museum and looking at a Rembrandt painting, remembers an ethics class she had taken “many years ago.” Each fall the teacher posed the same question to the students: Which would they choose if they were forced by a fire in a museum to save either “an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow” or “a Rembrandt painting.” The question had little meaning for the students, who were “restless on hard chairs” and who “car[ed] little for pictures or old age,” but each year they would “half-heartedly” alternate their answers, “one year for life, the next for art.” To try and make the question more relevant to her life, the poet admits she would try to picture the old woman as her grandmother, or as Pastan puts it, “the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face / leaving her usual kitchen to wander / some drafty, half imagined museum.”

The poet’s use of the phrase “half imagined” shows her awareness of her inability as a young student to conjure up the image of a museum, let alone to understand the complex implications of the question. Much more real were hard chairs and restlessness as she struggled with the problem. One year “feeling clever” the poet responded to the question by asking the teacher, “why not let the woman decide herself?” Later, the teacher “would report” that she (the poet) “eschews / the burdens of responsibility.” The teacher meant that the poet was avoiding the process of learning to make responsible choices by suggesting they let the woman decide for herself; she was placing the burden of the “responsibility” of choosing on someone else.

The poem turns on the word “responsibility” and moves to the second part. In the syntactical integrity of the poetic line, the poet puts the word at the end of the line placing emphasis on it. Though the progression in the poem moves in time from past to present, from when the poet is a child to when she is a mature woman, the action in the poem is implicit in the juxtapositioning of or opposition between the two parts of the poem.

The second part of the poem begins “this fall,” which brings the time back to present. This fall the poet finds herself in “a real museum” as opposed to some “half imagined museum,” standing before “a real Rembrandt,” as opposed to just a picture. The repetition of the word “real” shows the contrast between the theoretical and the concrete and the poet’s awareness of the irony of her situation as she recalls the question posed to her as a student. She is now an old woman herself, or “nearly so,” in a museum, before a Rembrandt. She no longer needs to find a face for the old woman to help make the theoretical personal; she is the woman, the painting is a real Rembrandt, an invaluable work of art painted by one of the great masters centuries ago.

As she studies the painting she notices “the colors / ... are darker than autumn, / darker even than winter.” The painter’s colors on the canvas are those deep colors seen at the end of a season, “the browns of earth.” The poet is also probably aware that the pigment in the colors has darkened over time (a particular problem in the preservation of the work of the old masters). In the next line, however, she sees that through these dark colors “earth’s most radiant elements burn.” The verb placed at the end of the line accumulates with weight, placing the importance of the line on the active verb “burn,” and evoking an image of a smoldering fire with deepened burnished light and heat. The syntax of line nineteen, which reads from the previous line as “old woman, / or nearly so, myself. The colors,” points to the poet’s awareness of the parallel she sees in the painting’s frame and in her own life. In a sense the painting acts for the poet as an objective correlative mirroring the inner state of her being, suggesting that though she has reached the later part of her life she still “burns” with life.

The final lines of the poem evoke a mature awareness on the part of the poet. They suggest a wisdom and a comprehension that only comes with age. To begin with she understands the value of the painting as she could not as a young girl. She remembers how little meaning either “pictures or old age” then had for her. The question posed by her ethics teacher was merely theoretical, an abstract exercise that had nothing to do with real life, which is full of paradox, irony, and contradiction. The restless student, now a mature woman, says in the concluding lines, “I know now that woman / and painting and season are almost one / and all beyond saving by children.” In the last two lines the poet’s use of the coordinating conjunction “and” to link “woman / and painting and season” places equal value through parallel structure on life, art, and nature.

The final lines also attest to the poet’s awareness of the complexity of the moral issue posed to her as a young and callow girl in the form of a choice between life and art. Furthermore, she understands the ironic nature of value itself. The season is at its richest in fall just before its end, and a painting acquires value with age. But what is the value of an old woman in a society that has little respect for old people, in general, and women, in particular? (In the first part of the poem the theoretical old woman “hadn’t many years left anyhow.”) The poet implies it is not society that makes “woman / and painting and season” “almost one,” but a much stronger force hinted at throughout the poem. The season is fall; the poet is almost old; and the painting, which is “darker even than winter,” is fading into blackness, and as such they are “all beyond saving by children.” The inexorable, equalizing force of time is with them all. By using the coordinating conjunction to link “woman / and painting and season” the poet places equal value through parallel structure on life, art, and nature and, in effect, still refuses to play the game in choosing one over the other.

Source: Alice Van Wart, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.


Gilbert, Sandra, “The Melody of the Quotidian,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol 11, No. 1, spring/summer 1983, pp. 147-56.

“Linda Pastan,” Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, Vol. 61, Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 364-67.

“Linda Pastan,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5, Part 2: American Poets Since WWII, Detroit: Gale, 1980, pp. 158-63.

Our American Century: Pride and Prosperity, the 80s, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1999.

Pastan, Linda, Carnival Evening, New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998.

Pastan, Linda, letter to the contributor, September 22, 1999.

Pastan, Linda, Waiting for My Life, New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.

Salter, Mary Jo, review of Waiting for My Life, in Washington Post Book World, July 5, 1981.

Smith, Dave, article, in American Poetry Review, January 1982.

Stitt, Peter, “Stages of Reality: The Mind/Body Problem in Contemporary Poetry,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, spring 1983, pp. 201-10.

Student Handbook: What Happened When, Nashville: The Southwestern Co., 1996.

For Further Study

Pastan, Linda, “Response,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, winter 1981, p. 734.

Pastan was chosen along with several other poets to respond, in colloquium style, to a statement made about the changing audience for poetry. Though quite brief, her comments reveal much about her detachment from literary criticism and her stance on the political power of poetry.

——— “Writing about Writing,” Writers on Writing, A Bread Loaf Anthology, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini, Hanover, NH: Middlebury College Press, 1991, pp. 207-20.

Pastan’s love of painting and interest in self-portraits provide the entree into this essay, which has a simple thesis: Pastan likes to write about writing, and so do many other poets. She creates some useful categories for poems about poems, such as “How to Do It” poems, “writer’s block” poems, “invocations to the muse,” and poems that define either poetry or the poet’s task. The anthology itself is full of lively essays by a variety of fiction writers and poets on the subject of writing, from many different viewpoints.

———, “Ask Me,” On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things, edited by Tom Andrews, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993, pp. 253-54.

This is Pastan’s tribute to the late poet William Stafford. It is short, intimate, and honest in her open affection for the late poet, and her discomfort in “writing about poems.” Pastan focuses on Stafford’s poem “Ask Me,” “because it seems to give me permission to be almost silent, to stand with him a moment quietly at the edge of the frozen river and to just wait.”

“Women & the Arts”, The Georgia Review (special issue), Vol. 44, Nos. 1 & 2, spring/summer 1990.

Occupying the center pages of this issue of The Georgia Review is a series of paintings, “Home-scapes,” by Georgia artist Mary Porter. Porter’s work, like Pastan’s, finds domestic themes, places, and objects to be worthy of art. In Porter’s lively water-colors and acrylics, the common porch, kitchen, stovetop, sink, laundry basket, and coffeepot are transformed “into enigmatic metaphors.” Several of the fiction writers, essayists, poets, and graphic artists in this issue are well known—Eudora Welty, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joyce Carol Oates, Maxine Kumin, Rita Dove, Eavan Boland, and Pastan, to name a few. The editors of this special issue hope that the contributors’ engaging, “varied energies,” will invite a “fresh reassessment” of women artists in our society.


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In a consideration of the relationship of ethical systems to social structure, it is important to show how these terms are being used; different meanings can represent different degrees of abstraction, and the kinds of relationship possible will vary accordingly.

Social structure” has been taken by Radcliffe-Brown (1952, p. 11; compare pp. 188–204) to mean “an arrangement of persons in institutionally controlled or defined relationships”; in this case, the term stands for a social organization with actual individuals as its constituents. It may be taken, as by Evans-Pritchard ([1940] 1963, p. 262), to exclude relations between persons, but to describe such relations between groups as have a high degree of constancy and consistency. Or it may be taken in a still more abstract sense–as a network of relationships between sets of institutionalized social roles (Firth 1954; Nadel 1957; Emmet 1960; 1966).

The view here adopted is that although observation must start from the first of these senses (interactions between persons) and may proceed through the second (regularities in group interactions), the systematic notion of a “social structure” will need to be couched in the abstract terminology of relationships between roles.

The notion of an ethical system is even less clearly determined. It may be taken to mean (a) the mores of a given society as a sociologist observes them; (b) a systematic code of moral principles, such as that of the Roman Catholic church; and (c) a philosophical theory about the rationale of moral action, such as utilitarianism.

Ethics and social structure. In considering relationship to a social structure, we would be tempted to say that we need be concerned only with (a). This, however, would be unsatisfactory, since to talk of an ethical system is to imply far more than a pattern of observed forms of behavior; rules of conduct, as derived from ethical notions, may be honored in the breach as well as in the observance. In order to discover a people’s ethical system even in sense (a), it will therefore be necessary to take into account their statements about what is considered right and wrong and why, as well as to describe conformities in their behavior and the working of sanctions against deviation.

For this reason, it might be logically preferable to consider an ethical system simply in sense (b), as a body of beliefs about right and wrong, although these are unlikely in many cases to be as systematic as those connected with a formulated theological position, such as that of the Roman Catholic church. Sense (b), however, can be related to social structure only by showing how the ethical beliefs in question affect the ways members of the society behave in their social roles.

Social structure in theory and practice. We also need to distinguish here between an idealized view of the social structure, seen as a network of roles played according to the rules (or, where rules are broken, corrected by sanctions) and the social structure as a generalized description of typical role behavior that may fall short of official ethical prescriptions. In the latter case, however, ethical prescriptions must be taken into account in seeking to understand the behavior, if only to show ways in which the prescriptions are being evaded; the notion of “role expectations,” often used in speaking of social structures, can thus be ambiguous. It may stand for predictions of how a person is likely to behave in a given role. It may also stand for “what is expected of him” (normatively) in that role; and notoriously people do not always live up to these “expectations.” An ethical system as a set of norms for action needs to be distinguished, therefore, from a descriptive account of the mores as customary ways of behavior (cf. Sumner [1906] 1959, chapter 2).

Distinctiveness of ethical judgments. It is also important to try to distinguish those aspects of the mores that should properly be called ethical from those more properly called religious, legal, political, or matters of etiquette. This is a matter in which the anthropologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Westermarck, were interested, but to which less direct attention has been paid more recently, perhaps because moral values pervade these other aspects of social life and are difficult to isolate from them (Edel 1962). Some recent work has been done by moral philosophers on what may be the distinctive criteria of moral as distinct from other kinds of judgment (Ladd 1957; Brandt 1954; cf. Macbeath 1952). But the question of whether these criteria are logically necessary to anything that can be called an ethical system, or whether they are culture bound, is a matter calling for cooperative work between philosophers and anthropologists. Until there is a larger body of material for comparative study directed to such questions as whether primitive peoples have specifically ethical notions that are independent of their religious or political notions, the field of study will remain largely speculative.

Two kinds of ethical relativism. The distinction between the logical criteria of what makes a system an ethical system and the substantive principles it contains has not always been drawn by writers on the cultural conditioning of ethical beliefs. While generally holding that ethical beliefs are “relative” to a culture, they do not always distinguish the “reductionist” form of ethical relativism, which presents the ethical beliefs of a people as functionally dependent on their other beliefs and practices, and the kind of “content” relativism which, while allowing that substantive ethical beliefs and practices may be affected by other factors within the society, nevertheless recognizes that there may be distinctive moral interests not exhaustively explicable in terms of other interests. The difference between these two approaches can be summarized by saying that the reductionist maintains that the ethical beliefs of a people can be exhaustively rendered in terms of their non-ethical interests, such as the familial or economic, whereas the “content” relativist is prepared to admit that the belief that “X is right” can provide a bona fide reason for acting accordingly, although the content of X may be culturally variable (Emmet 1966, chapter 5).

The latter approach would be concerned with seeing how these different interests may affect each other in producing a particular “way of life”; an instance is Max Weber’s well-known thesis on the relation between the Puritan ethic and capitalism in the seventeenth century (Weber 1904–1905). This need not be taken (as by some Marxists) to mean that the ethical ideas of the Puritans were simply a superstructure rationalizing their economic behavior. On the contrary, it can mean that the kinds of behavior, such as hard work and thrifty living, prescribed by their ethical beliefs fitted the kinds of behavior needed for successful entrepreneurial activity in the early stages of a capitalist economy. Thus, a mutual reinforcement of two strong human interests–the ethical and the economic–would be produced and a way of life with survival value established. This type of analysis aims at finding functional interrelations between ethical and other practices within a society without prejudging the question of whether, nevertheless, there may not be distinctively ethical motives and interests; for instance, the belief that hard work is morally commendable need not only be a disguised way of saying hard work is economically profitable, nor is it necessarily caused by the fact that hard work is profitable.

Ethical systemsform and content. The question of the distinctive criteria of ethical as distinct from other kinds of judgment has not been overlooked, however, by all writers on the social relativism of morals. Westermarck, in particular, held that there was a universal form of ethical judgments inasmuch as they expressed disinterested retributive emotions (1906–1908; 1932). This question of the distinction between the general logical character and the particular substantive content of an ethical system is a point where the third meaning of the term that we distinguished earlier–philosophical theories about the nature of ethical systems–becomes relevant. Edel and Edel (1959) have suggested that an ethical system may be distinguished by certain broad notions that any such system may be supposed to provide for; for example, it will contain some kind of sanction, reasons justifying some kinds of conduct and not others, and, more specifically, some means of controlling aggression and some notion of distributive justice. This may be compared with what Hart (1961, p. 189) has called the minimum content of natural law. This is not a notion of natural law as a universal rational code of ethical principles but a listing of certain basic requirements that any code must somehow meet if people are to live together sufficiently permanently to satisfy the logical and empirical requirements of constituting a “society” (see also Levy 1952, chapter 4 on “The Functional Requisites of Any Society”). Comparative work on these requirements, and on what differences of emphasis may be given them, would be one of the ways in which the study of ethical systems and social structures could be brought together.

Some alternatives to functionalism. The structural-functionalist approach reflected in the terms “ethical system” and “social structure” has sometimes been interpreted as assuming a more highly integrated and normatively controlled unity within a society than need in fact obtain. The work of Parsons, especially The Social System, 1951, has been criticized on these grounds (Lockwood 1956; see also Emmet 1958 for a more extended discussion of the issues). An approach of perhaps more immediate empirical applicability has been outlined by Merton (1957, chapters 8 and 9), who uses the term “reference group” to denote the group or groups from which an individual may take his ethical cues. Modern societies in particular may contain many persons who, although they are conformists from the point of view of their own reference group, are deviants by the values of the larger society of which their group is a part. Study of deviance and conformity in terms of reference groups may have the effect of reviving interest in the formal means, such as political and legal systems, of preserving social cohesion within pluralistic societies. Structural-functional studies, on the other hand, have been mainly concerned with the less formal sanctions of custom and unplanned institutional practices [see REFERENCE GROUPS].

Students of organizations have also drawn attention to the importance of informal as well as formal structures. The workings of a large industry cannot be understood simply by looking at the organization chart or by consulting official statements of aims; it is also necessary to discover the unofficial networks of communication, interaction, and leadership. In some cases, elements within these unofficial structures may have their own ethical systems (for example, views on the amount of work that ought to be done), and these can frustrate the official system unless they are taken into account [see ORGANIZATIONS, article on EFFECTIVENESS AND PLANNING OF CHANGE].

Role, status, and the individual. If we recognize the looseness of the texture of actual social life, in contrast with any simplified model of the social structure, we see the individual not only as carrying specified role obligations but also as having to meet the demands of a number of different and perhaps conflicting roles. A variety of social structures can be abstracted from the whole field of human relationships: professional, political, family, and friendship roles may all be played by the same individual and are likely to produce competing pressures. Barnard (1938) has called attention to this in the case of high executives, showing how positions of responsibility produce conflicting claims that make heavy demands on an individual’s intellectual and moral resources. It is unlikely that any ethical system can be so structured as always to show the priorities among these claims, or any social structure be so simple as not to produce these conflicts.

In relating ethical systems to social structure, therefore, it may be asked whether the former can thereby be explained in terms of the latter. A “sociological explanation,” following Durkheim (1895), may here be taken to mean an account of behavior not in terms of historical or psychological causation, but in terms of the ways groups are related to one another within the society. Role behavior in social groups is defined partly with reference to ethical norms of expected conduct (cf. Durkheim 1893 on how this is so even in the economic field); we may therefore say that the ethical system of defining role obligations can be considered as an aspect of the social structure, insofar as ethical notions enter into the ways roles are seen and performed. Here a mutual conditioning between ethical beliefs and social arrangements, as we have said, seems more plausible than a one-way causation of the one by the other.

Role performance and social change. It may, of course, be asked whether an individual may not be conditioned by the training he receives through the institutions of his society in order to see his role obligations in only one particular way. However, individuals can have their own styles in role performance; they may deviate in various ways; they will have to decide between conflicting role obligations; and in some cases they may create a new role for themselves. There may thus be much individual behavior that will not enter into the description of a social structure except insofar as it may produce innovations that alter the image of an existing role or create a new one. Indeed, it may be said that individual innovation becomes sociologically important only when it modifies role behavior to such an extent that social structure is affected (Emmet 1966, chapters 7 and 8). Individual conduct, therefore, is not being considered as such and is more properly left to psychologists and philosophers.

Nevertheless, the study of social structure can show how certain kinds of behavior will be expected and certain possibilities will be foreclosed because of features in the social situation; and to study the nature of ethical systems in relation to the social structures in which they are embedded may help us to understand why certain actions are thought of as right or wrong in particular societies. These two kinds of understanding can thus fructify one another without being thought of as mutually reducible.




BARNARD, CHESTER I. (1938) 1962 The Functions of the Executive. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

BRANDT, RICHARD B. 1954 Hopi Ethics: A Theoretical Analysis. Univ. of Chicago Press.

DUKKHEIM, ÉMILE (1893) 1960 The Division of Labor in Society. 2d ed. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → First published in French.

DURKHEIM, ÉMILE (1895) 1958 The Rules of Sociological Method. 8th ed. Edited by George E. G. Catlin. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → First published in French.

EDEL, ABRAHAM 1962 Anthropology and Ethics in Common Focus. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 92:55–72.

EDEL, MAY; and EDEL, ABRAHAM 1959 Anthropology and Ethics. Springfield, Ill.: Thomas.

EMMET, DOROTHY M. 1958 Function, Purpose and Powers. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martins.

EMMET, DOROTHY M. 1960 How Far Can Structural Studies Take Account of Individuals? Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 90:191–200.

EMMET, DOROTHY M. 1966 Rules, Roles and Relations. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martins.

EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E. (1940) 1963 The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon.

FIRTH, RAYMOND 1954 Social Organization and Social Change. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 84:1–20.

HART, HERBERT L. A. 1961 The Concept of Law. Oxford: Clarendon.

LADD, JOHN 1957 The Structure of a Moral Code: A Philosophical Analysis of Ethical Discourse Applied to the Ethics of the Navaho Indians. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

LEVY, MARION J. 1952 The Structure of Society. Princeton Univ. Press. → See especially Chapter 4.

LOCKWOOD, DAVID 1956 Some Remarks on The Social System. British Journal of Sociology 7:134–146.

MACBEATH, ALEXANDER 1952 Experiments in Living: A Study of the Nature and Foundations of Ethics or Morals in the Light of Recent Work in Social Anthropology. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martins.

MERTON, ROBERT K. 1957 Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. & enl. ed. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → The first edition was published in 1949.

NADEL, SIEGFRIED F. 1957 The Theory of Social Structure. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

RADCLIFFE-BROWN, A. R. 1952 Structure and Function in Primitive Society. London: Cohen & West.

SUMNER, WILLIAM GRAHAM (1906) 1959 Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Dover.

WEBER, MAX (1904–1905) 1930 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons, with a foreword by R. H. Tawney. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Scribner. -→ First published in German. The 1930 edition has been reprinted frequently.

WESTERMARCK, EDWARD A. (1906–1908) 1924–1926 The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. 2 vols., 2d ed. London: Macmillan.

WESTERMARCK, EDWARD A. 1932 Ethical Relativity. New York: Harcourt. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Littlefield.


Ethics is concerned with standards of conduct among people in social groups; for this reason, research in social science is inextricably bound up in ethical problems. The initial choice of a problem for investigation by the social scientist is often value-laden. The process of inquiry in the social sciences, engaging as it frequently does the lives of people, must meet moral as well as scientific standards. And the product of inquiry constantly adds new data and new theories requiring the revision of established ethical systems. Ethics and social science thus move in contrapuntal relationship, each adding to the character of the other (Shils 1959).

Old issues and new. There are a number of principles of ethics in social science research that are so widely recognized and honored that they do not need detailed discussion. Among these are maintaining highest standards of work, reporting procedures and results faithfully, protecting information given in confidence, giving appropriate credit to co-workers, making appropriate acknowledgment of other writers’ materials, representing accurately one’s own qualifications, and acknowledging, when appropriate, sources of financial support. The central issue in all of these is integrity, as indeed it is in every step of a true research endeavor. For this reason some social scientists have objected to proposals to define ethical standards for research, arguing that the canons of science are an exacting and sufficient guide to conduct. However, new problems arise as scientists move into new areas under new auspices; old problems appear in new contexts and require new solutions. Ethical standards must be redefined continually to keep them relevant to contemporary situations. Below are several issues that are subjects of concern and of lively debate as this article is written. If these issues are soon dated and no longer lively, it is probably a healthy sign that consensus is being reached on them and that new issues are capturing concern.

Deception in social science research. In many experiments or inquiries in the social sciences, it is necessary, or has been widely considered necessary, to disguise the nature of the task assigned to the subject. The procedure arises usually from the need to control the “set” or “expectancy” with which the subject approaches the task, since set is known to be an important determinant of responses. While in most instances the consequences are trivial, in some instances they may not be trivial at all. In all instances the issue is raised, Is deception ever justified?

Clearly, scientists think that deception is sometimes required to achieve a good that would not otherwise be achievable. For example, it is common practice in medical research to administer a placebo to a control group in order to assess the effects of a drug. No harm is done; the control subjects might still be given the drug if it proves effective. But the outcome of deception is not always benign. In one of the classical experiments on deceit, the investigators tempted children to steal and deceived them into believing that their action could not be detected. Some children did indeed steal. The investigators concluded that honesty is often influenced by the situation, a point demonstrated as much in their own behavior as in that of the children (Hartshorne & May 1928). In a second well-known investigation, social psychologists infiltrated a religious group, posing as converts (Festinger et al. 1956); their conduct has been questioned (Smith 1957). In an experiment on the effects of group pressure on judgment, five co-workers of the experimenter were represented as uninstructed subjects, just like the person whose resistance to social pressure was to be tested (Asch 1948). Both the deception and the stress generated thereby may be questioned, from an ethical viewpoint. Russian psychologists investigating the same problem have avoided the need for deception by using all naive subjects and analyzing the data for trends that occur naturally, accepting the loss in experimental efficiency.

A reasonable ethical standard for such a situation would be that the investigator has an obligation to inform his prospective subject of any aspect of the experiment that might be considered an important factor in the subject’s decision to serve. While such an ethical policy obviously has much to commend it, the losses would be great; many experiments concerned with the dynamics of human behavior would be made impossible. Ethics aside, there are pragmatic arguments in favor of a policy of full disclosure of intent. With growing sophistication, the public may come to regard all social science experiments as situations in which deception is to be expected. At this point even truth is suspect. The problem is not simple, nor is it unimportant. Perhaps a minimum obligation of the social scientist is to make the public aware of the problem.

Stress in social science research. While many experimenters have subjected participants in research to stress, one investigator has been taken to task for his seeming insensitivity to the excruciating ordeal his subjects were going through and for his failure to see the larger implications of his methodology. The critic (Baumrind 1964) very reasonably questioned the ethics of subjecting people to extreme stress and pointed out the moral parallels to historical situations in which innocent people have been tortured in the interest of science. The experimenter’s rejoinder (Milgram 1964) provides further instruction in the complexity of the problem and demonstrates the value of a continuing debate of ethical issues in research.

The customary routine is to talk with the subject after an experiment involving stress, to explain the procedure, and to try to relieve any residual discomfort. This procedure may suffice in many investigations, but there are others reported in the literature in which the stress is so severe that one could not realistically hope to repair the damage by such a postsession conference. A suitable topic for cross-disciplinary research would be an investigation of possible lingering or delayed effects of experiments involving stress or deception.

It has been proposed that there is already enough stress in life arising from natural causes and that social scientists should not add to it. An alternative is to study stress reactions in natural settings. Many of these are unpredictable and are amenable only to observational study after the event, but some excellent research has been done following disasters, such as tornadoes and earthquakes, by sociologists who were prepared to take advantage of an unpredictable event. There are also predictable and necessary stressful situations that are a normal part of living and could be used in research. A first-grade classroom on the first day of school and the father’s waiting room at a maternity hospital are settings where stress can be studied without the investigator’s causing it. Webb and his co-workers (1966) have provided an imaginative and useful examination of methodological options in “nonreactive research in the social sciences,” including attention to ethical problems.

Protection of research data. The right of the clinician to keep data confidential is widely (though not universally) recognized by custom and in some states and countries by law. But the scientific investigator does not as clearly enjoy such protection. For example, the social scientist engaged in survey research may encounter a serious ethical problem, and lack clear guidelines for conduct, when his evidence is introduced in a court as legal testimony. The court or either contending party may have a legitimate interest in the reliability of the survey and may demand that respondents be identified in order to call them as witnesses. But survey data are generally obtained with assurances of anonymity; a violation of this pledge would not only involve a betrayal of confidence but would also impair the survey method as a research technique by diminishing public confidence in agencies that use the procedure. In at least one ruling, a court has sustained the right of a survey agency to keep confidential the names of persons interviewed, but other judges may rule differently. Obviously, the social scientist engaged in survey research has a minimum obligation to inform himself on the issues involved so that he can behave responsibly toward people who supply him with information (King & Spector 1963). He might also be expected to anticipate such problems in the planning stages of a study and to take protective measures against a number of contingencies. The issue of proper protection of data, here discussed with reference to surveys, may be equally relevant in other kinds of research. The problem is complicated by the investigator’s obligation to keep his work open for scrutiny by competent scientists.

The invasion of privacy. Privacy is a most cherished right of the individual in a free society, and it may well be an important condition for the integration of experience and the achievement of autonomous selfhood. Social scientists are engaged in a number of enterprises that can lead to a reduction of individual privacy. The ethical issue that seems most frequently involved is that information about a person or his family may be collected, and perhaps used officially, without the individual’s being aware of what is happening. The use of personality tests for appraising prospective employees, screening school children, and so on has recently attracted public attention. In some instances, restrictive regulations have been imposed to prevent what is seen as an undue invasion of privacy.

Privacy is not always an individual matter but may involve social institutions which depend for their effectiveness on assurances against intrusion; such is true of the jury system in the United States. In 1955, some sociological investigators, with the permission of the trial judge and the contending lawyers, concealed microphones in a jury room and recorded the jury’s deliberation. Although the information obtained was treated with scrupulous care by the investigators, the incident created a national furor. The jurors had clearly been deceived and were appropriately indignant. An issue of broader concern involved in this instance was the appropriateness of scientific inquiry into an established social institution; the social scientist who undertakes such studies must be uncommonly concerned with ethical issues, since damage may be done both to social science and to the institutions studied by social scientists.

As computers become increasingly available and efficient in both storage and processing capacities, we face the prospect of an invasion of privacy of quite a different sort. With various agencies collecting diverse data about an individual over a sufficient period of time, and with the data centrally stored and processed, the possibility is imminent that extensive and reliable inferences can be made about an individual that far exceed his intentions of disclosure. The protection of privacy that has come from fragmentation of information or from the sheer tedium and expense of analysis may indeed be lost.

One example may suffice to indicate the further significance of technological developments: it is now possible to obtain, by mail order, a detailed analysis of an individual’s responses to the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory; the evaluation that once required the services of a highly skilled clinician can be provided now, in much shorter time, by a computer. The ethical implications of advances in computer technology are yet to be explored.

The invasion of privacy issue arises at the point of intersection of two highly valued social goods: the need for knowledge about problems, opinions, motivations, and expectancies of people and the need for preservation of personal rights. While the conflict of social values involved is an ancient one (the rack and screw were information-obtaining devices), the problem is of notable contemporary importance because of the steady increase in amount of, and reliance on, social science research, on the one hand, and the advances in the technology of inquiry, including electronic listening devices, recorders, cameras, computers, personal inventories, projective techniques, and planted informers or confederates, on the other hand.

Among the issues that must be considered in achieving a proper balance of conflicting social and individual interest are the importance of the investigation, the informed consent of subjects, the preservation of confidentiality, and the judicious use of records of research. The individual scientist’s decisions about these moral issues must be harmonious with the opinion of his peers or with a community consensus. As the social scientist comes to have more of value to offer the community, he can expect more community understanding and support of the unavoidable violation of privacy attendant upon much social science research. (For an informed and sophisticated analysis of the problem of privacy, see Ruebhausen & Brim 1965.)

The issue of informed consent. In medical research it has generally been the practice to obtain the informed consent of a patient as a condition for his participation in an investigation; however, loose definitions of what is meant by informed have permitted great latitude in practice. In a decision that will have implications for all research involving human subjects, the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York in 1966 stringently defined expectations for medical investigators:

No consent is valid unless it is made by a person with legal and mental capacity to make it, and is based on a disclosure of all material facts. Any fact which might influence the giving or withholding of consent is material. A patient has the right to know he is being asked to volunteer and to refuse to participate in an experiment for any reason, intelligent or otherwise, well-informed or prejudiced. A physician has no right to withhold from a prospective volunteer any fact which he knows may influence the decision. It is the volunteer’s decision to make, and the physician may not take it away from him by the manner in which he asks the question or explains or fails to explain the circumstances. (Langer 1966, p. 664)

In this statement the words social scientist might be substituted for physician and subject for patient to arrive at an important guideline for research in the social sciences.

But again the issue is not simple. Is a patient in a control group in a medical experiment to be told that the treatment he will receive is known to have no physiological effect but will be administered to control for psychological effects? If such candor were required, much medical research would be impossible. And so it is with social science research, where possible gains in socially valuable knowledge must be weighed against possible losses of individual prerogatives. For a clear joining of the issue, in regard to psychological research, see the correspondence of Miller and Rokeach (1966). Rokeach wrote, to define the complexity of the problem: “What is typically involved in making a decision about moral values, whether in or out of science, is not a choice between good and evil but a choice between two or more positive values, or a choice between greater and lesser evils” (1966, p. 15). All-or-none solutions are seldom satisfactory.

Cross-cultural studies. The many ethical issues involved in cross-cultural and transnational investigations, long a concern of the professional anthropologist (see, for example, Redfleld 1953 and also the “Statement on Ethics of the Society for Applied Anthropology” 1963–1964), were thrust into public prominence, in 1965, by the debacle of Project Camelot, an inquiry sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense into “the causes of revolutions and insurgency in underdeveloped areas of the world.” Exposure of the project in a South American country led to protests from the U.S. ambassador, a Congressional investigation, the cancellation of the project, and a policy requiring that all government-sponsored, foreign-area research be approved by the U.S. Department of State. The fact that Camelot became a national and international cause célèbre involving ambassadors, senators, cabinet members, newspapermen, university officials, social scientists, and the president himself, and that it was interpreted as a cloak-and-dagger operation in spite of the sincerity and good will of the participating scientists, has served to obscure the ethical issues involved, issues that demand serious and sophisticated consideration by the social scientist, whether involved in cross-cultural studies or not.

Among the ethical issues are these: Should the intentions of a sponsoring agency be the concern of a social scientist even when he is personally allowed full freedom of inquiry? Should the social scientist be concerned with the uses to which the results of his studies will be put? What is the responsibility of the social scientist for ensuring that the very process of inquiry does not have a deleterious effect on the people being studied? Does the social scientist have an obligation to preserve access to people for subsequent investigators? Is there a point at which inadequacies of design or procedure, or lack of scientific merit in a study, become intrinsically ethical issues by virtue of their imposition on others? These and similar questions may appear to have easy answers, but a sympathetic study of Project Camelot will show their complexity and emphasize the need for social scientists to consider them anew in the context of every proposed investigation (Horowitz 1965).

Social science and social issues. Social science may often have relevance to crucial matters of public policy. With increasing frequency advocates of diverse political and social policies turn to the social scientist for support of their position. Or the social scientist himself, exercising the prerogative of a citizen to make public statements on social and political issues, may find his statements given credence beyond what could be supported by data, by virtue of his being recognized as a scientist, regardless of his competence on the particular topic. Drawn into such an unaccustomed arena, the social scientist must be especially mindful of how he presents his qualifications and of the ethical implications of his statements. Issues related to racial characteristics, for example, have so conjoined science and public policy that they have been made the subject of study by the Committee on Science in the Promotion of Human Welfare of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (“Science and the Race Problem” 1963).

Care of animals in research. The psychologist has relied heavily on animals–rats, dogs, birds, primates–as subjects in research. To protect laboratory animals from neglect or abuse, formal regulations governing the management of animal laboratories have been developed. These require the provision of adequate food, water, and medical care, the maintenance of sanitary living quarters, the use of anesthetics to prevent pain in operations and other procedures, the provision of postoperative care, and the destruction of animals by humane means. Committees on care of laboratory animals review problems periodically. The U.S. Public Health Service publishes a booklet entitled “Guide for Laboratory Animal Facilities and Care” (Animal Care Panel 1963) and requires recipients of grant support to observe the requirements to assure proper and humane treatment of research animals. The American Psychological Association requires posting in “all rooms where animals are housed and where animal experimentation is conducted” of regulations titled “Guiding Principles for the Humane Care and Use of Animals.” In spite of these efforts to assure highest ethical standards in the care of laboratory animals, there is a perennial demand for federal legislation to control practices, especially with respect to dogs and cats. In 1964 there were eight bills introduced in the 88th Congress of the United States, two of which would have been severely restrictive. Although there are occasional cases of negligence or of needless infliction of pain, animals are generally well cared for, and the Congress has shied away from enacting legislation on the matter (Brayfield 1963).

Communication in social science research. Marin Mersenne promoted science in seventeenth-century France by copious letter writing; the problem of communication in science has since become exceedingly complex, with many attendant ethical issues. Ethical problems have involved such issues as plagiarism, misrepresentation of data, the betrayal of confidence, claiming undue credit, and other clearly unacceptable behavior. With the development of what has been called “big science” with extensive government support, problems of a new and more subtle character have emerged. For example, the assignment of credit for research accomplished by a large organization seems to be solved neither by crediting the director alone, as has been done and protested, nor by crediting 30 contributors, as was done in a recent listing of authors. Although promotions may depend on publications, there is a growing need to limit publication to significant findings likely to be of value to others. The sheer volume of reports threatens to overwhelm our most efficient systems for coding, storing, and finding information. Thus, for an investigator to impose the same findings twice on about the same audience constitutes an offense to the development and dissemination of knowledge. The following statement has been proposed to control the volume of publication: “. . . scientific publication [should] be considered a privilege consequent upon the finding of something which people may need to read, rather than as a duty consequent upon the spending of time and money. . . . Furthermore … no paper [should] be committed more than once to the published literature without very special pleading” (Price 1964).

Research on moral development. Thus far certain theoretical and practical problems relating to ethics and social science research have been considered. It should be noted now that social science research itself is a potential major source of understanding of ethical conduct, of the origins and development of moral standards. Pioneer work was done by Hartshorne and May (1928). Piaget (1932) provided a theoretical matrix for illuminating stages in the moral development of the child. Anthropologists and social psychologists (Whiting 1963) have studied the influence of the family on character formation in different cultures. Russian pedagogical specialists are working explicitly to provide educational experiences to instill communist values in children (Bronfenbrenner 1962). In the United States, the establishment of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, to promote research on normal development, can be expected to encourage basic research on the problem.

Social control of scientific inquiry. Various professional, trade, labor, and fraternal groups exert a major influence on the behavior of individuals in contemporary society. Perhaps because of their very diversity they escape attention as instruments of social control, yet it has been contended that they speak with more authority today than do organized religious groups and, further, that they influence day-by-day conduct even more than do local, state, and national governments.

Many of these associations have formal codes of ethics. For the most part these codes have been found to have little effect on the behavior of members of the group (American Academy of Political and Social Science 1955). They are one of the appurtenances of associations and are designed with an eye to building public confidence. However, the traditions, mores, and expectancies that are generated in professional groups do affect behavior, often holding members to extraordinarily high standards of conduct. When codes of ethics are in harmony with long-established tradition (as in The Principles of Medical Ethics) or when they are backed up by effective machinery for enforcement, they can be powerful instruments of social control.

The American Psychological Association has applied social science theory and methodology to the task of developing a code of ethics (Hobbs 1948). The critical incidents technique was used to obtain the basic data for the construction of the code. Members of the association were asked to supply descriptions of situations in which a psychologist took some action that either upheld or violated ethical standards. From over a thousand such incidents a committee extracted the principles that appeared to be involved in the behavior reported. The result is two documents: a succinct code (American Psychological Association 1963) and a book-length statement (American Psychological Association 1953) of ethical standards that includes principles, discussions of issues, and illustrations drawn from the collection of critical incidents. Now underway is a new inquiry directed specifically at ethical issues in psychological research; the critical incident technique is again being used to develop basic data from which ethical principles will be derived.

The psychologists’ statement of ethical standards is being augmented by a collection of case studies drawn from the files of ethics committees responsible for the enforcement of the code. The assumption is made that the definition of ethical standards is an ongoing, never-finished process and that participation in the process by members of the association may be more important than the written code itself in nurturing high ethical standards in the profession. The Committee on Cooperation Among Scientists of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is collecting similar descriptions, not necessarily to prepare a code of ethics but to illuminate the ethical problems encountered by scientists in all fields.

When scientists fail to regulate their own behavior to the satisfaction of informed members of the community, one can confidently predict that controls will be imposed by legislation or by administrative regulations. In 1965–1966, two major federal agencies adopted procedures governing ethical issues in research supported by their grants. One agency requires that tests, questionnaires, and other data-gathering devices be approved in Washington by a special review group composed of staff members, with the assistance of consultants. The other agency has established a requirement that grant requests involving possible ethical issues must be reviewed by a recognized local committee of peers of the investigator. The second solution appears to offer protection to research subjects on the basis of competent review without the danger of overcentralized control of scientific inquiry. However, there are responsible investigators who contend that a prescribed review by local peers is an invidious requirement implying incompetence and guilt when competence and rectitude should be assumed, with intervention indicated only when there is some evidence to the contrary. Here again a social process to define appropriate procedures is underway, with the proper resolution still unclear.

It can be expected that society will develop, in time, a productive balance between its need for knowledge and the individual’s need for protection against intrusion, inconvenience, or discomfort. A dialectic tension involving values fundamental to a democracy must be resolved, both in terms of general principles and in terms of particular instances. For example, freedom of inquiry must be balanced against rights of privacy, both cherished values in our society. While the issues are complex, resolution is possible. The accommodation, both in substance and in process, will probably be comparable in character to rules governing the right of eminent domain and the right of the individual to own property.

The individual investigator is not without common-sense guidelines. While the answers may not always be clear, some of the questions are: Is the knowledge to be gained worth the imposition involved in obtaining it? Would another design be equally productive but less intrusive? Has fullest advantage been taken of the subject’s informed willingness to cooperate? Has the proposed inquiry been designed to minimize effects on the subject population so that subsequent investigators will not be handicapped? To what extent are the proposed procedures consonant with emerging standards, or a calculated departure from them?

Nor is the investigator without criteria to assess and perhaps discover the adequacy of his answers to such questions: first, his own standards as an investigator, concerned quite as much with ethical as with statistical elegance of design; then the approbation of other competent scientists; and, finally, the appreciation of the larger community, or of significant sections of it, whose support is essential to the continued development of the social sciences.

It is of greatest importance to keep ethical problems under continuing scrutiny and debate, in journals, in training programs, in public forums, with social scientists themselves taking the initiative in the process, in order to provide increasingly instructive principles for clarifying ethical issues in social science research.

Nicholas Hobbs



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in the bible

There is no abstract, comprehensive concept in the Bible which parallels the modern concept of "ethics." The term musar designates "ethics" in later Hebrew, but in the Bible it indicates merely the educational function fulfilled by the father (Prov. 1:8) and is close in meaning to "rebuke." In the Bible ethical demands are considered an essential part of the demands God places upon man. This close connection between the ethical and religious realms (although the two are not completely identified) is one of the principal characteristics of the Bible; hence, the central position of ethics throughout the Bible. Accordingly, the Bible had a decisive influence upon the molding of ethics in European culture in general, both directly and indirectly through the ethical teachings in apocryphal literature (see *Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) and the New Testament which are based on biblical ethics.

Social Ethics

The command to refrain from harming one's fellow man and to avoid doing evil to the weak is fundamental to biblical ethics. Most of the ethical commands specified in the Bible belong to this category: due justice (Ex. 23:1–2; Deut. 16:18–20); avoidance of bribery (e.g., Ex. 23:8), robbery, and oppression (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 24:14); defense of the *widow and the *orphan; compassionate behavior toward the *slave; and the prohibition of gossip. Added to these were the commands to sustain the poor (Deut. 15:7–11), feed the hungry, and clothe the naked (Isa. 58:7; Ezek. 18:7). The radical but logical conclusion derived from this is that man is obliged to suppress his desires and feed even his enemy (Prov. 25:21), return his enemy's lost property, and help him raise his ass which is prostrate under its burden (Ex. 23:4–5). Biblical ethics, which cautions man to love and respect his fellow man, reaches its highest level in the commandment: "You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart, reprove your neighbor," which concludes with "Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:17–18). The principle aim of this commandment, as of others, is the avoidance of unfounded hatred which destroys the life of the society.

The general trend of social ethics was summed up by the prophets who said: "Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate" (Amos 5:15); and similarly: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). These passages and their like not only summarize the teaching of ethics, but also place it at the center of the Israelite faith. A summation of biblical ethical teachings is contained in the well-known saying of Hillel: "What is hateful to you do not do unto another" (Shab. 31a).

The Ethical Perfection of the Individual

Unlike the ethical system of Greek philosophy, which seeks to define the various virtues (who is courageous, generous, or just, etc.), the Bible demands of every human being that he perform the good deed, and behave virtuously toward his fellow man, and is not concerned with abstract definitions. This attitude is almost explicitly expressed in Jeremiah 9:22–23: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the strong man glory in his strength, let not the rich man glory in his riches. Only in this should one glory: in his earnest devotion to me. For I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice, and equity in the world; for in these I delight – declares the Lord." From this it follows that doing what is right and just is the essence of biblical ethics. The personal ethical ideal is the ẓaddik (the good man; see *Righteousness). Ezekiel defines him in detail for the purpose of explaining the doctrine of reward and *punishment, and his definition is nothing but an enumeration of the deeds performed by the good man and of those from which he refrains (Ezek. 18:5–9). The essence of all of these acts is the proper relationship between man and man, except for one commandment, to shun idolatry, which is solely a duty of man to God. A similar definition of the good man appears in Isaiah 33:15 and in Psalm 15. Added to the ideal of the righteous man in Psalms is the Godfearing man who finds happiness in the teachings of God and in the worship of Him and who shuns the life devoid of ethical earnestness (e.g., Ps. 1). The personal ethical ideal received further expression in the character of *Abraham, who was credited with several especially fine and noble qualities. He was complaisant in his relationship with Lot, hospitable, compassionate toward the evil inhabitants of Sodom, humble and generous in his dealings with the people of Heth, and he refused to profit from the booty of the war with Amraphel.

Distinguishing Feature of Social Ethics in the Bible

The lofty level of biblical ethics which is evident in the command to love one's neighbor, in the character of Abraham, and in the first Psalm, is peculiar to the Bible, and it is difficult to find its like in any other source; however, the general ethical commandments in the Bible, which are based on the principle of refraining from harming others, are a matter of general human concern and constitute the fundamentals of ethics. Some characteristic features of biblical ethics, such as due justice and the rights of the widow and the orphan, are prevalent in the ancient Near East (see below). Therefore the generalization that the Bible is unique among religious works in the content of its ethical teachings cannot be made. However, the Bible does differ from every other religious or ethical work in the importance which it assigns to the simple and fundamental ethical demand. The other nations of the ancient Near East reveal their ethical sense in compositions that are marginal to their culture: in a few proverbs dispersed throughout the wisdom literature, in prologues to collections of laws, in various specific laws, and in confessions (see below). The connection between ethical teachings and primary cultural creations – the images of the gods, the cult, the major corpus of law – is weak. The ethical aspirations of these cultures are sometimes, but not always, expressed in their religion and social organization, while the Bible places the ethical demand at the focus of the religion and the national culture. The ethical demand is of primary concern to the prophets, who state explicitly that this is the essence of their religious teaching. Basic sections of biblical law – the Ten Commandments, Leviticus 19, the blessings and curses of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (Deut. 27:15–26) – contain many important ethical commandments. Biblical law itself testifies to its ethical aim: "Or what great nation has laws and norms as just (ẓaddikim) as all this Teaching…" (Deut. 4:8). While the wisdom literature of Israel is similar to that of the neighboring cultures, it is distinctive in the greater stress it places upon ethical education (see below). The assumption that God is – or should be – just, and the question of reward and punishment which follows from that assumption, are the bases of the religious experiences found in Psalms, Job, and some prophetic passages. The opinion of Hillel the Elder that the ethical demand is the essence of the Torah may be questioned, for it can hardly be said to be the only pillar of the biblical faith. However, there is certainly a clear tendency in the Bible to place the ethical demand at the focus of the faith, even if it does share it with other concerns such as monotheism (see biblical view of *God).

Biblical ethics teachings, though clear and forceful, are not extraordinary in content, for the Bible requires nothing other than the proper behavior which is necessary for the existence of society. Biblical ethics does not demand, as do certain other systems of ethics (Christianity, Buddhism, and even some systems in later Judaism), that man withdraw completely or even partially from everyday life to attain perfection. Asceticism, which views the normal human situation as the root of evil, is foreign to the Bible and to the cultures of the Near East in general. The Bible approves of life as it is, and, accordingly, makes its ethical demand compatible with social reality. However, the degree of justice which it is possible to achieve within the bounds of reality is demanded with a clear forcefulness which allows for no compromise. This makes the Bible more radical than most ethical systems. The ethical teachings of the Bible, like the Bible generally, are addressed first and foremost to Israel. But some biblical passages extend the ethical demand to encompass all mankind, such as the *Noachide laws (Gen. 9:1–7), the story of Sodom (Gen. 19:20ff.), or the rebuke of Amos against the neighboring kingdoms for their cruelty (Amos 1:3–2:3). The setting of the Book of Job is also outside the Israelite realm.

Sexual Ethics

What has been said up to here applies only to social ethics, in view of the fact that in the realm of sexual morality the biblical outlook differs from that of neighboring cultures. The Bible abhors any sexual perversion such as *homosexuality or copulation with animals, prescribing severe punishments for offenders (Lev. 18:22–23; 20:13, 15–16). The adulteress sins not only against her husband, but also against God (e.g., Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10; Mal. 3:5). Fornication is generally frowned upon, severely condemned by *Hosea, and legally punishable by death in some cases (Lev. 21:9; Deut. 22:21). The other peoples of the ancient Near East did not treat these offenses with such severity. They regarded *adultery as essentially an infringement upon the rights of the husband – damage done to his property, like robbery or theft – and not as an abominable act sinful to God. Society was reconciled to prostitution, although a certain stigma was attached to it. Therefore Babylonian law, for example, defines the legal status of the various types of prostitution and treats it as it treats other phenomena in society (e.g., Code of Hammurapi, 145, 181, in: Pritchard, Texts, 172, 174; Middle Assyrian Laws, 40, in: ibid., 183). There is little opposition to sexual perversions: homosexuality is numbered among the sins in the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" (see below); Hittite law punishes copulation only with certain animals, and even these not very severely (see below). This opposition, which is occasionally expressed, does not declare these acts to be an outright abomination. Fornication and more serious sexual offenses are ascribed to the gods in *mythology, and possibly played a role in the cult (see Kedeshah). Therefore, it is clear that the biblical stand on these matters is unique. The biblical sexual ethic was imposed by Christianity on most of the civilized world in theory if not in practice but in the ancient world it was unique to Israel.

Ethical Teaching in the Bible

means of instruction

The orientation of biblical ethics is uniform in content, but is expressed in different ways, according to the viewpoint of the particular book of the Bible. The strongest and most radical expression of the goal of biblical ethics is found in the rebukes of the prophets, who chastise the people relentlessly for ethical transgressions and demand ethical perfection (especially in the realm of social ethics) without compromise. But their rebukes do not really constitute instruction, for they do not always teach one how to behave in particular situations.

Biblical law is concerned with providing ethical instruction in particular acts. The legal sections of the Torah explicitly and in detail forbid various offenses such as murder, robbery, and bribery, and explicitly demand support of the poor, love of one's neighbor, and the like (see below).

Both prophecy and law demand of man in the name of God that he behave properly. Their ethical outlook is a fundamental element in their demand that man do God's will, and therefore is not practical utilitarianism, even though they teach the doctrine of reward and punishment. This ethical attitude is given added depth in the Psalms, where it becomes a matter of religious feeling that throbs in the heart of the righteous man who seeks closeness with his God (see Ps. 1; 15, especially verses 2, 4, 24:4; 34:13–15). The Book of Job also stresses the commandment of righteousness to which the individual is subject, but from another aspect. Job is not content to protest that he did not commit transgressions of robbery, oppression, or bribery, but asserts that he actually observed positive ethical commandments and was strict with himself beyond the requirements of the law. For example, he claims he did much to support those in need of his help: "Because I delivered the poor who cried, and the fatherless who had none to help him. The blessing of the destitutes came upon me, and I gladdened the heart of the widow" (Job 29:12–13). Job 31 contains a series of oaths concerning his righteousness, all beginning with ʾim, "if," which is often equivalent to "I swear": "(I swear) I have not rejected the cause of my man servant …" (verse 13); "(I swear) I have not made gold my trust …" (verse 24). Job is careful to be above suspicion not only in social ethics, but also in sexual ethics, for he claims: "If I have been enticed by a woman, and have lain in wait at the door of another man, may my wife be used by another …" (31:9–10).

The ethical teachings in all the biblical books so far surveyed are considered an essential element of God's demands of man. In this respect, the attitude of *Proverbs is different. Most of the proverbs aim at proving to man that it is worthwhile for him to follow the good path from the consideration of simple worldly wisdom. For example, Proverbs does not declare that adultery is prohibited but points out the dangers in it (6:24–35). In a similar vein are the following verses: "Do not slander a servant to his master, lest he curse you, and you be made to feel your guilt" (Prov. 30:10), and "If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat … for you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you" (25:21–22). Although there is also a reference to God here, man is placed at the center of ethical instruction. This approach is more practical and utilitarian than the approach of the Bible in general, due to the practical educational orientation of the Book of Proverbs. While Proverbs belongs to the category of general wisdom literature which was prevalent in the ancient Near East, it nevertheless differs from other works of this type in the prominence it gives to ethical instruction; in Proverbs it is of prime importance, while in the wisdom literature of the peoples of the ancient Near East, it is of secondary importance. There are two reasons for this: first, Proverbs aims at the education of the young citizen while the works of Ahikar and Egyptian didactic literature place more emphasis on the training of the official; second, Israelite wisdom literature identified the righteous man with the sage on the one hand, and the evil man with the fool on the other (e.g., Prov. 10:21, 23).

*Ecclesiastes, in those sections that deviate from stereotyped wisdom literature, casts doubt on the benefit of wisdom in general, and on the simple utilitarian ethical instruction contained in Proverbs. He knows that "there is not one good man on earth who does what is best (i.e., leads to the most desirable results, 6:12) and does not err" (7:20). In his despair he says: "don't overdo goodness …" (7:16–18).

ethical instruction in the biblical narrative

Narrative is the one literary form in the Bible which is not entirely infused with an ethical orientation. In biblical narratives ethical instruction is presented indirectly in the form of words of praise for noble deeds, and even this praise is, for the most part, not explicit. Deeds which are represented as noble include Joseph's fleeing from adultery (Gen. 39:7–18), the mercy shown by David in not killing Saul (i Sam. 24; 26:3–25), and the story of Rizpah, daughter of Aiah (ii Sam. 21:10). Abraham is the only biblical character who can truly be described as an ethical model. The other heroes in biblical narrative (Judah, Joseph, Moses, Caleb, Joshua), although blessed with fine qualities, are not described as models of ethical perfection. The Bible portrays their shortcomings clearly (though implicitly; Isaac's weakness of character, Jacob's cunning, the sins of Saul and David) and does not make the slightest attempt to whitewash the ethical defects of its heroes. However, it is the rule in biblical narrative that appropriate punishment follows specific transgressions: Jacob, who bought the birthright by deception, is himself deceived by Laban; David is punished for his sin with Bath-Sheba, and so on. Yet these features are not especially emphasized and thus do not give biblical narrative a prominent ethical orientation. It has been said that biblical narrative takes no clear moral stance, but rather rejoices in the success of its heroes even when they act immorally (Jacob, when he bought the birthright; Rachel, when she stole the household idols; Jael, when she killed Sisera). It is true that the main intent of biblical narrative is to make known the greatness of God, whose acts are the only ones that are perfect. Thus the narrator can afford to see human beings as they are. He does not force himself to moralize overmuch, or to make his heroes model men, but introduces the ethical aspect only where it suits the story. Thus in the narrator's attitude to his heroes one observes a kind of tolerant, knowledgeable understanding of human nature: it is this which makes most biblical stories great, both as literature and as ethics.

law and ethics

The Bible does not make a formal distinction between those commandments which could be classified as ethical, those which are concerned with ritual (circumcision, sacrifices, the prohibition against eating blood), and those which deal with common legal matters. Scholarship is obligated to differentiate between these categories and to see where the ethical aim appears. The ethical aim can be distinguished by recognizing the difference between the basic, general commandment "Thou shalt not murder" and the laws concerning the punishment of the murderer (e.g., Num. 35). Thus ethical commandments, in the strict sense, are laws without sanctions, to be obeyed but not enforced, e.g., the commandments of gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, and the corner of the field (Lev. 19:9–10, see *Leket, Shikhḥah, and Pe'ah); the prohibition against harming the orphan and the widow (e.g., Ex. 22:21–23); the prohibition against delaying payment of wages (Lev. 19:13). Aside from the clearly ethical commandments, there is a general tendency in biblical law to emphasize the aspiration for justice which is the basis for every law. To be sure, every law is based upon the ethical viewpoint of the legislator and attempts, through the power of practical regulations, to enforce the ethics accepted by the existing society; however, biblical law aspires to this end clearly and consistently, as for example, "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (as the summary of practical regulations concerning the establishment of courts, Deut. 16:18–20), the laws of the Bible are defined explicitly as "just laws and statutes" (Deut. 4:8). Accordingly ethical and social reasons were attached to several laws, such as the commandment for the Sabbath: "So that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave …" (Deut. 5:14–15). This tendency is revealed in laws whose purpose was to defend the weak and to limit the power of the oppressor, such as the laws governing the Hebrew slave (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12) or the relatively lenient punishment of the thief. Yet it must be remembered that law is based not only on the abstract viewpoint of the legislator, but also on the needs of the society according to its particular structure and customs. Therefore an evaluation of biblical law is incomplete if only the ethical aspect is considered; however, the discussion of the aim of law is not essential to the definition of biblical ethics.

ethical instruction among the peoples of the ancient near east


The Egyptian attitude toward ethics is expressed in literary works of different types. Among these works it is worth noting the books of proverbs (wisdom literature) which teach practical wisdom and proper behavior and include basic ethical principles such as not to covet, rob, or trespass, to be diligent in the performance of justice, and the like. Along with these principles, the books of proverbs include advice on practical knowledge which goes beyond the foundations of pure ethics; there is even the impression that the Egyptian sages advised their students to act justly because in this way they would succeed and achieve their goals, and not because justice is an ethical principle in its own right. According to Frankfort, however, this impression is the product of insufficient understanding of the Egyptian world view.

Another type of literature similar to wisdom literature in its ethical orientation and termed "ideal biography" by scholars is seen in the compositions which were engraved on the walls of tombstones and monuments to the dead. In them, the deceased tells what he did and how he conducted himself throughout his life, as for example: "I spoke the truth, I acted honestly … I judged both sides to the satisfaction of both. I rescued, with all my power, the weak from the strong. I gave bread to the hungry, and clothing to the poor, etc."

Another aspect of Egyptian ethics is revealed in the collection of writings called the "Book of the Dead." This is a collection of documents from various ancient sources, whose purpose is to assure the passage of the dead into eternal life. It contains statements which the deceased must make when he stands in judgment upon entering the world of the dead, such as: "I did not do evil to any man … I did not revile the name of the god, I did not slander the servant in front of his master … I did not murder, I did not cause a death … I did not sin by homosexuality, etc." (ch. 125). The deceased announces that he did not commit ethical offenses or transgressions of the cult, without distinguishing between the two. The list is arranged in a stereotyped manner, but it does contain certain ethical principles. On the other hand, the negative confession is close in purpose to a magical incantation, a kind of amulet which is helpful to every man after death even if he was not righteous during his life.

There is yet another basic concept in Egyptian culture which has, without doubt, ethical significance, namely, the concept of maʿat which means truth, justice, honesty, or proper order. It is said that the gods live in maʿat; the king who sets aright the order of the country and establishes just rules is setting maʿat upon its foundation; the way of an honest man – and especially the way of an official who must judge a just case – is maʿat; and also the order according to which nature behaves is maʿat.

It is difficult to discuss the meaning of the Egyptian doctrine of ethics, because the Egyptian world view in general is beyond reach; the reason being, in Bonnet's opinion, that the Egyptian ethics was not specifically related to the teachings and practices of the religion. Ethical qualities are not characteristic of the gods, and there are cases where Egyptian religion expresses a viewpoint which is not ethical. In Frankfort's opinion, one should not claim that the Egyptians did not have a highly developed ethical doctrine, but one should deal with what is particular to their outlook. The Egyptian saw his world as secure and orderly and nature as behaving always according to maʿat. The duty of man is to act according to the same secure and eternal law, to be congenial, not to be ambitious and bad-tempered, and to enjoy the good things in life without anxiety. The Egyptian does not know the fear of sin because his god does not demand that he observe positive and negative precepts. Instead, he helps those who generally behave according to maʿat, and corrects the sinner by means of punishment. According to Frankfort, the confession of the dead is not characteristic of the Egyptian ethical outlook; it originates in fear in the face of death, but does not directly affect the way of life.


The Sumerian legislator king Lipit-Ishtar announces in the prologue and epilogue of his law code that he acted lawfully and justly during his kingship and diligently guarded the freedom of the people of Sumer and Akkad, and insured that the father helped his sons and the sons their father. Hammurapi too, in the prologue to his law code, states that he ruled justly in his land, suppressed wickedness and evil, and prevented the strong from oppressing the weak; in his epilogue he commands that justice be done to the orphan and the widow so that the oppressed will find salvation in his just laws and will bless him before the gods. Thus, there was an ethical basis to law in Sumer and Akkad. Babylonian wisdom literature is not as abundant as that of Egypt, but the extant literature contains ethical instructions such as not to requite evil to one's enemy, not to gossip, and the like; there is also a warning not to marry a prostitute because she will not be faithful to her husband. In atonement rites, which were intended to save the sick and atone for injuries likely to be done to one's fellow man, the magico-cultic aspect is more important than the ethical aspect (see *Atonement). A type of ethical instruction is also included in the plentiful "omen" literature. Among the collections of omens of all types, which usually have no ethical content, are also omens which contain ethical teachings such as: "if one renders good, good will be rendered to him." The gods are, to a certain extent, considered to be the guardians of ethics and the dispensers of retribution to the evil. However, there is also a Babylonian document which expresses man's despair over the lack of justice in the rule of the gods. The author of this document clearly sees how society oppresses the just, the honest, and the poor and praises the wicked man who succeeds. Mesopotamian myth shows that the gods of Sumer and Akkad were not ethical. The religious Babylonian believed that man was created so that the gods could benefit from his labor, and was not certain that the rule of the gods was just and beneficent. The fear of sin was well-known to him, but the sin itself – if he sinned, how he sinned, when he sinned – was hidden from him.

Documents devoted to ethical instruction have not been preserved from the remaining civilizations of the ancient Near East, but there is some indirect information on this subject. For example, in *Ugarit it was the king's duty to pursue justice for the widow and to protect the weak (ii Keret, 46:50; cf. also ii Aqhat, v. 7–8). In Hittite law (188), punishment was decreed for copulation with some animals (Pritchard, Texts, 196), and in this legal collection, as well as several other Mesopotamian ones, there were laws concerning incest.

[Jacob Licht]

in later jewish thought

The Jewish religion has essentially an ethical character. From its biblical origins to its present stage of development, the ethical element has always been central to the Jewish religion, both as a principle and as a goal. However the intimate connection between religion and ethics was differently interpreted in different periods of Jewish thought. At least two principal trends can be distinguished, the first identifying Jewish ethics with moderation (the middle way), the second insisting on the extreme demands of an absolute ethic. Many thinkers emphasize that Judaism transcends the ethical framework of religion, thereby assuming a metaethical character. Examples of this trend are divine demands, made in prophetic revelations, which seem to conflict with moral norms, and the existence of human suffering.

In talmudic literature, legislative concerns are never the last word. Not only does the aggadah, by means of moral lessons, complete and temper the autonomy of the halakhah, and not only is the tractate Avot an anthology of moral thought; but, more obviously, in every conflict between the legal rigidity of the law and the criteria of ethics, the latter hold sway. Fear of God is superior to wisdom; actions surpass ideas; man is called upon to take a stand in favor not of reason but of the good. Ethics appear not as speculative principles but in terms of human experience; the talmudic sages are presented as moral exemplars and the ideal of holiness is identified with a scrupulously honest and pure life.

Medieval and modern literature testify to the dual tendency to formulate an ethic which is both theoretical and practical. Some medieval Jewish philosophers developed systematic formulations of Jewish ethical ideas, as for example *Saadiah Gaon and Solomon ibn *Gabirol, whose Tikkun Middot ha-Nefesh is unusual in that it expounds an autonomous ethic which has no connection with religious doctrine. *Maimonides' Shemonah Perakim is a classical work of Jewish ethics which shows similarities to the Ethics of Aristotle. There is scarcely a Jewish philosopher or exegete of the Middle Ages who does not devote at least some portion of his work to showing that the body of Jewish thought and its biblical or talmudic sources revolved around ethics. This trend continues to modern times when Jewish philosophers, since Moses *Mendelssohn, place ethics at the center of their description of the universe. For example, Moritz *Lazarus and Elijah *Benamozegh, in the 19th century, give this tendency a classical expression, one composing a standard work entitled Die Ethik des Judentums ("Ethics of Judaism"), the other by comparing Jewish and Christian ethics (Morale juive et morale chrétienne). It would be out of place to mention *Spinoza in this connection, for while his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus shows Jewish influences, the same is not true of his Ethics.

In addition to the literature mentioned there are a number of works which are important for the development of medieval and modern Jewish ethics because they reflect an individual or collective experience. The Kabbalah and other mystical currents contributed greatly to the emergence of these works. Examples of this type of literature are *Bahya ibn Paquda's Ḥovot ha-Levavot, the Sefer Ḥasidim (see *Ethical Literature), and M.Ḥ. *Luzzatto's Mesillat Yesharim. These works have become very popular and have been adopted by such opposing Jewish circles as the *Ḥasidim and *Mitnaggedim. In the 19th century, under the influence of R. Israel *Lipkin (Salanter), the *Musar movement reintroduced the primacy of ethics into the highly intellectual talmudic academies.

The Middle Way and the Absolute

The intimate connection between religion and ethics was interpreted differently in different periods of Jewish life and thought. At least two principal tendencies can be distinguished. In line with the ideal set down in Proverbs and various Psalms, and also in the Jewish Hellenistic writings and Palestinian teachings in the rabbinic period, Jewish ethics strives for moderation. It condemns excess, obviously in the sense of evil but also in the sense of good, and condemns equally greed and waste, debauchery and abstinence, pleasure and asceticism, impiety and bigotry. Maimonides developed this identification of Jewish ethics with the middle way (Shemonah Perakim; Yad, De'ot) though, at times, he tends toward a more ascetic position. The majority of medieval and modern Jewish philosophers follow Maimonides' general view and the theme of moderation in Jewish ethics. Consequently, they were opposed to ethical extremism such as that of Christianity, and this view became a commonplace in Jewish apologetics.

Nevertheless, the notion of moderation is not the only facet of Jewish ethics. The biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes strongly criticize the middle way. In the Book of Job especially, where the middle way is recommended by the friends of Job, this approach is ultimately rejected by God. The Talmud goes further in its declaration that the attitude of moderation is the attitude of Sodom: "He that says, 'What is mine is mine and what is thine is thine' – this is the middle way, and some say that this is the way of Sodom" (Avot 5:13). It is not surprising, therefore, that the Talmud praises well-known sages who, going beyond the strict letter of the law (li-fenim mi-shurat ha-din), gave their entire fortune to the poor (R. Yeshevav), practiced celibacy (Ben Azzai), spent many hours of the day and night in prayer (R. Ḥanina b. Dosa), and, altogether, seemed generally to conform to the monastic ideals of the *Essenes. Asceticism is central to the works of Bahya and Luzzatto, the Sefer ha-Ḥasidism, and, in a way even to 18th century Ḥasidism. It is true that in this mystical movement, whose influence is still being felt today, asceticism was transformed into joy, but the ethic of this joy was as extreme and absolute as was the ascetic ethic.

It would therefore be incorrect to associate Jewish ethics with a uniform and moderate attitude. This attitude, which is often presented as a contrast to Christian ethics, is actually only one aspect of Jewish ethics. The other aspect, with its extreme and absolute demands, is equally typical of Jewish thought.

The Ethical and the Metaethical

By the implications of certain of its teachings, Judaism goes beyond the limits of the ethical, and enters the domain of the metaethical, "beyond good and evil." Already in the Bible, the concept of holiness is affirmed much more often as a category which transcends ethical considerations, rather than as an ethical postulate. The transcendence of God elevates holiness above the moral equity guaranteed by the Covenant. The well-known verse of Isaiah, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways" (55:8), is often employed by medieval and modern Jewish thinkers as a key for interpreting certain problems which escaped all ethical definition, most notably the problems of freedom and suffering.

How should one accept, from the point of view of ethics, the unusual conduct of certain prophets (Hosea's association with a prostitute; the nudity of Isaiah; the celibacy of Jeremiah)? Unless they resorted to allegorical exegesis, the biblical commentators were forced to admit, and they did so willingly, that there operated here a certain arbitrary divine will which transcended ethical categories. Maimonides expounded this theme in stating that God remains the supreme arbiter of the gift of prophecy. Prophecy is not intrinsically bound to ethical qualities. Of course, only an ethical person can become a prophet, but the man of the highest ethical qualities cannot become a prophet without God's charismatic and transcendent will.

Similarly, the midrashic interpretations of the sacrifice of Isaac, of the dramas of Saul or of Job, are much closer to the existentialist point of view of Kierkegaard or of Kafka than to the systems of Maimonides or of Kant. The conflict between Saul and David was not a matter of ethics but of good or bad fortune. Abraham, ultimately, should have disobeyed the divine command to sacrifice his son, which was inspired more by Satan than by God. Job was perfectly innocent, and his inexplicable sufferings could generate nothing but tears. These, and similar themes, which are scattered throughout talmudic and ḥasidic literature, were often taken up by the Jewish existentialists of the 20th century such as Martin *Buber and Franz *Rosenzweig. They culminate in the doctrine of radical insecurity, whose sources one may find in the Bible, but which finds a more cohesive expression in a talmudic formulation: Kulei hai ve-ulai ("All this and perhaps?"). Even while the most apparently perfect conditions can be gathered together to weigh the balance in favor of good or evil, there yet remains a coefficient of uncertainty which is beyond good and evil. It is possible that events will follow the ethical expectations. It is also possible, however, that these expectations will not be fulfilled. It is true that this disorder is interpreted as a voluntary (and temporary) weakness of God which permits man to exercise his will. Thus, this metaethical Jewish view remains ultimately ethical and never leads to a passive pessimism. The divine transcendence does not disturb the ethical equilibrium except in order to call upon man to reestablish, together with God, an equilibrium which has been disrupted. The metaethical is the price for the inalienable moral essence of the Covenant.

[Andre Neher]


bibliographies and encyclopaedias: N. Amsel, Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (1994); S.D. Breslauer, Contemporary Jewish Ethics: A Bibliographical Survey (1985); S.D. Breslauer, Modern Jewish Morality: A Bibliographical Survey (1986). in the bible: F. Wagner, Geschichte des Sittlichkeitsbegriffs (1928–36); A. Weiser, Religion und Sittlichkeit der Genesis (1928); W.I. Baumgartner, Israelitische und altorientalische Weisheit (1933), 4–7, 24–30; F.R. Kraus, in: za, 43 (1936), 77–113; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 1 (1937), 27ff., 31ff., 431–3; 2 (1945), 68–70, 557–628; J. Hempel, Das Ethos des Alten Testaments (1938); H. Duesberg, Les scribes inspirés, 1 (1938), 92–126, 481–500; H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1948), 56–80; N.W. Porteous, in: H.H. Rowley (ed.), Studies in Old Testament Prophecy (1950), 143–56; E. Neufeld, The Hittite Laws (1951), 53; A. Gelin, Morale et l'Ancient Testament (1952), 71–92; H. Kruse, in: Verbum Domini, 30 (1952), 3–13, 65–80, 143–53; H. Bonnet, Reallexikon der aegyptischen Religionsgeschichte (1952); W.G. Lambert, in: Ex Oriente Lux, 15 (1957–58), 184–96; idem, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1960); S.E. Loewenstamm, in: Sefer S. Dim (1958), 124–5; idem, in: bm, 13 (1962), 55–59; E. Jacob, in; vtSupplement, 7 (1960), 39–51; E. Hammershaimb, ibid., 73–101; M. Greenberg, in: Y. Kaufmann Jubilee Volume (1960), 5–28. in later jewish thought: M. Lazarus, Ethics of Judaism (1900); G.F. Moore, Judaism, 2 (1927, repr. 1958), 79–111; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology (1963), 490–9; Guttmann, Philosophies, index; M. Kadushin, Worship and Ethics (1964); S. Bernfeld, Foundations of Jewish Ethics (1967); B. Herring, Jewish Ethics and Halakhah for Our Times: Sources and Commentary, 2 vol. (1984–89); L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews, 2 (19603), 1010–42; M.J. Routtenberg, in: F.E. Johnson (ed.), Patterns of Ethics in America Today (1960), 7–27.


views updated Jun 11 2018


school teaching
kenneth a. strike

higher education
carol j. auster


Ethical concerns about teachers and teaching occur in a variety of contexts and can be thought of in several ways. This article discusses (1) how ethical issues are represented in the law; (2) how ethical issues are represented in the National Education Association's (NEA's) code of ethics; (3) ethically based comprehensive views of education; (4) the role of ethics in educational policy; and (5) meta-ethical disputes relevant to education.

Ethics and the Law

The education codes of many states require that teachers be persons of good character. Most states also permit teachers to be dismissed for unethical conduct. States also forbid particular forms of misconduct, such as child abuse, sexual harassment, and drug abuse, and their violation may be grounds for dismissal.

What counts as good character or conduct can be a contentious matter. In past decades teachers might have been dismissed not only for drunkenness, homosexuality, unwed pregnancy, or cohabitation, but also for myriad other offenses against the moral code of their community. Some of these may still be gray areas; however, in recent years, courts have been inclined to insist that actionable immoral conduct be job-related, providing some protection for the private lives of teachers. Here a particularly contentious matter is whether being a role model is part of the job of teachers, because this expectation can expand public authority over the lives of teachers. In certain cases, as when teachers discuss controversial matters in class or employ controversial teaching methods, they may be protected by the First Amendment. Teachers, especially those who are tenured, are also likely to have significant due-process rights. Dismissal for immoral conduct is most likely when the teacher has committed a felony, in cases of inappropriate sexual advances toward students, or in cases of child abuse. In this last case, teachers may also have a duty to report suspected misconduct by others.

The kinds of misconduct dealt with by the law are usually acts that are (or can be viewed as) unethical in any context. Teachers, like others, are expected to not steal, kill, commit assault, abuse children, or engage in sexual harassment. Although the definition of immoral conduct in the law has not become coextensive with violations of criminal law, there is little in the meaning of immoral conduct that is distinctive to teachers or teaching.

The NEA Code of Ethics and Ethical Principles Internal to Teaching

The most prominent code of ethics for teachers is the NEA's Code of Ethics for the Education Profession. The preamble to this code begins: "The educator, believing in the worth and dignity of each human being, recognizes the supreme importance of the pursuit of truth, devotion to excellence, and the nurture of democratic principles. Essential to these goals is the protection of the freedom to learn and to teach and the guarantee of equal education opportunity for all."

The code has two sections with eight provisions in each. The first section, entitled "Commitment to the Student," promotes the freedom to learn, requires equal opportunity, protects students against disparagement, and protects privacy. The freedom-to-learn provisions prohibit teachers from preventing student inquiry, denying students access to diverse points of view, and distorting subject matter. The code-specific provisions do not assert affirmative duties for teachers to create an inquiry-oriented environment or to pursue educational objectives, which might be associated with the pursuit of truth, individual autonomy, or democratic principles. The prohibition against distortion of subject matter falls short of a prohibition of indoctrination.

The second section of the code begins with the comment that "the educator shall exert every effort to raise professional standards, to promote a climate that encourages the exercise of professional judgment, to achieve conditions which attract persons worthy of the trust to careers in education and to assist in preventing the practice of the profession by unqualified persons."

Among its enumerated provisions are prohibitions against misrepresenting one's own qualifications or those of others, prohibitions against assisting unqualified persons to teach, and prohibitions against the defamation of colleagues. Although the ideals expressed in the introduction of the second section of the code might lead one to expect specific provisions requiring conscientious professional development, the maintaining of qualifications, or the creation of a collegial learning environment, no such provisions are found.

The NEA code implicitly recognizes three sources of ethical ideals and principles. The first is what might be termed the ethics of inquiry. The second area might be called the civic ethic. That is, the NEA code recognizes those ideals and principles that regulate the public conduct of citizens of liberal democratic states to be ideals and principles that should also regulate the practice of education. A reason for this is that one goal of education is the creation of citizens. The third source of ethical ideals is the ideal of professionalism.

There are difficulties and questions associated with such ideals and principles. Consider the following examples:

  1. What fundamental values underlie these principles? The NEA code suggests that the value that underlies the ethics of inquiry is truth, but another possibility is autonomy.
  2. What is the best construction of these abstract principles? The NEA code indicates that students may not be unfairly excluded, denied a benefit, or given favoritism on the basis of a list of presumptively irrelevant characteristics. The use of the word unfairly cloaks a multitude of issues. For example, how do we know when exclusion or inclusion on the basis of race (one of the irrelevant characteristics listed) is unfair? Is affirmative action unfair?
  3. Are there values that must be balanced against these principles? In some understandings of professionalism, a core commitment of professionalism is: Those who know should rule. If so, professionalism in education needs to be balanced against the expectation that public schools are under the democratic authority of school boards and state legislatures.
  4. What is omitted? These three sources of ethical content do not clearly include various conceptions concerning human relations that seem relevant to teaching. Examples might be caring and trust. Nor are ideals such as promoting the growth of the whole child or creating community mentioned.

Ethics and the Philosophy of Education

It has been common in the philosophy of education to begin an inquiry into the aims of education by asking questions such as "What is the nature of the good life?" and "What kinds of societies promote the best lives?" The Greek philosopher Plato's Republic is a classical example. Such questions fall within the range of the subject matter of ethics. Answers to these questions can provide part of the framework for building a comprehensive vision of education rooted in what John Rawls has termed a "comprehensive doctrine" (1993, p. 13), and they may guide the professional practice of teachers. In societies characterized by what Rawls calls durable pluralism, there are serious difficulties with such an approach. In such societies, the educational systems cannot be rooted in a single comprehensive doctrine without marginalizing or oppressing those who hold other doctrines and without restricting personal autonomy.

Arguably, societies committed to liberal democratic values may respect pluralism and personal autonomy while also emphasizing creation of citizens. Amy Gutmann in Democratic Education (1987) argues that the central aim of the schools of a democratic society must be to develop democratic character. Eamonn Callan in Creating Citizens (1997) argues that societies committed to liberal principles of tolerance and reasonableness must provide students with an education enabling them to understand and sympathetically engage a variety of ways of life. It may, however, be argued that such an education is itself intolerant of those who wish to transmit a distinctive way of life to their children. One of the more difficult issues for the schools of liberal democratic societies is how to respect diversity while having common schools that produce good citizens.

Ethics and Educational Policy

The civic ethic provides conceptions that are relevant, not only to teachers' classroom practice, but to wide-ranging areas of educational policy. For example, it has been common in recent years to claim that equality of opportunity should emphasize equal educational outcomes instead of equal access or equal inputs. Assume that achievement can be measured by test scores. What pattern of test scores would be desired, and how should resources be distributed to attain it? Consider three possibilities:

  1. Emphasize increasing average test scores. Possible objections are that this is consistent with considerable disparity in levels of achievement. Moreover, average scores might be increased by focusing resources on the most able at the expense of the least able.
  2. Emphasize the achievement of the least advantaged or least able. Possible objections are that such an approach might lead to significant investment in the education of students where there will be only modest return, and resources will be used inefficiently.
  3. Emphasize getting all who are able above some threshold that defines minimal ability to participate in our society. This approach may lead to difficulties similar to the previous one.

These are competing principles for distributing educational resources. Although they concern such matters as state or school district budgets, in fact they may also concern the distribution of teacher time. They shed light on such questions as whether teachers should spend disproportionate time with those who are most needful or with those who will make the most progress. These various approaches are analogous to principles of distributive justice that are widely discussed in philosophical literature. The first is a utilitarian principle emphasizing the maximization of good outcomes. The second seeks to maximize the welfare of those who occupy the least advantaged positions in society. The third is a threshold view emphasizing getting everyone above some defined level. These principles illustrate the ways in which moral conceptions can inform policy and practice.

Meta-ethical Issues

The term meta-ethics concerns the general nature of ethics instead of specific ethical prescriptions. Two meta-ethical disputes are the justice/caring debate and the postmodern critique of modernity.

The justice/caring dispute grows out of a critique of Lawrence Kohlberg's views of moral development by feminist scholars, principally Carol Gilligan. Kohlberg viewed justice as the central moral conception. Gilligan claimed in In a Different Voice that women's thinking about ethics emphasizes care. Other advocates of an ethic of care, such as Nel Noddings, have developed the notion into a robust view of ethics and of education. By the early twenty-first century there was some rapprochement between these views, based on the claim that both justice and caring should be a part of any adequate ethic.

A second meta-ethical perspective is postmodernism. Although understandings of this stance are complex and varied, one useful characterization of postmodernism claims that it is incredulity toward all grand meta-narratives. A grand meta-narrative is a sweeping and general view about human beings and society. Liberalism and socialism are examples. Postmodernists often argue that all such grand stories represent the perspectives of groups or eras and, when viewed as the single truth of the matter, are oppressive. Postmodern critiques often seek to deconstruct such meta-narratives by showing their biased character and how they serve the interests of some over others.


The following (not mutually exclusive) sources of ethical ideals and principles are relevant to an informed view of the ethics of teaching:

  • 1. The law pertaining to teacher certification and dismissal, which is likely to proscribe only the most egregious behavior.
  • 2. The NEA code of ethics. This code draws on three sources of ethical content.
  • a. The ethic of inquiry.
  • b. The civic ethic.
  • c. An ethic of professionalism.
  • 3. Ethical conceptions that inform educational policy, such as views of distributive justice.
  • 4. Conceptions of human flourishing and the nature of liberal democratic societies.
  • 5. Competing meta-ethical conceptions.

Of these sources, ethical conceptions rooted in the ethics of inquiry and in the civic ethic may have the most salience to teachers because they are associated with the paramount educational goals of advancing knowledge and creating citizens. They are "internal" to the activity of teaching. Other sources apply to schools because they apply broadly to most social institutions or human activities.

See also: National Education Association; Philosophy of Education; Teacher.


Bull, Barry. 1990. "The Limits of Teacher Professionalism." In The Moral Dimensions of Teaching, ed. John Goodlad, Roger Soder, and Kenneth Sirotnik. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Callan, Eamonn. 1997. Creating Citizens: Political Education and Liberal Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Feinberg, Walter. 1998. Common Schools: Uncommon Identities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fischer, Louis; Schimmel, David; and Kelly, Cynthia. 1999. Teachers and the Law. New York: Longman.

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gutmann, Amy. 1987. Democratic Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Katz, Michael; Noddings, Nel; and Strike, Kenneth A., eds. 1999. Justice and Caring: The Search for Common Ground in Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1981. The Philosophy of Moral Development. New York: Harper and Row.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1993. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Noddings, Nel. 1984. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Peters, Richard. 1996. Ethics and Education. Atlanta, GA: Scott, Foresman.

Plato. 1964. The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rawls, John. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sockett, Hugh. 1993. The Moral Base for Teacher Professionalism. New York: Teachers College Press.

Strike, Kenneth A. 1988. "The Ethics of Resource Allocation." In Microlevel School Finance, ed. David H. Monk and Julie Underwood. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

Strike, Kenneth A. 1990. "The Legal and Moral Responsibilities of Teachers." In The Moral Dimensions of Teaching, ed. John Goodlad, Roger Soder, and Kenneth Sirotnic. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Strike, Kenneth A., and Soltis, Jonas F. 1998. The Ethics of Teaching, 3rd edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

White, Patricia. 1996. Civic Virtues and Public Schooling. New York: Teachers College Press.

internet resource

National Education Association. 2002. "Code of Ethics of the Education Profession." <>.

Kenneth A. Strike


As members of the academic community, faculty and students have a responsibility to abide by ethical principles regarding academic freedom, intellectual integrity, and the fair and respectful treatment of others. The notion of academic freedom lies at the very heart of the academic enterprise. In the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure," the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) states, "Academic freedom applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning" (p. 3). Intellectual integrity involves using sound and ethical methods in the pursuit of knowledge as well as embracing honesty in the dissemination of knowledge. Individuals' expectation of fair and respectful treatment by faculty and students applies not only to interactions with one another, but also to administrators, staff, and others with whom they interact in their role as members of the academic community. Fair and respectful treatment also extends, for example, to the evaluation of students' academic work and colleagues' scholarly work.

The ethical principles that guide the behavior of faculty are reflected in standards of ethics described in the documents of professional associations for faculty in higher education, such as the "Statement on Professional Ethics (1987)" published by the American Association of University Professors, and codes of ethics published by disciplinary associations, such as the American Chemical Society, the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the Modern Language Association. In addition, college and university faculty handbooks often include a section that addresses ethical standards or expectations regarding the behavior of faculty. Ethical standards for students may be found in official student handbooks or college and university catalogues, although standards for graduate students are also addressed in some of the professional and disciplinary association codes of ethics. These various documents embody shared beliefs that are intended to guide both the activities and the behavior of those engaged in the academic enterprise.


Faculty are guided by ethical principles that address their professional responsibilities as teachers, scholars, and, more generally, members of college and university communities. While some aspects of documents concerning ethical standards describe the behavior to be embraced, other aspects make clear what actions must be avoided.

Plagiarism. Representing the ideas, words, or data of another person or persons as one's own constitutes plagiarism. Thus, a person's words, ideas, or data, whether published or unpublished, must be acknowledged as such. For example, the MLA (Modern Language Association) Style Manual states, "To use another person's ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source is to plagiarize" (Gibaldi, sec. 1.8). "The most blatant form of plagiarism is reproducing someone else's sentences more or less verbatim, and presenting them as your own" (Achten and Gibaldi, sec. 1.4). Although scholars have long recognized the importance of citing both published and unpublished work, those engaged in teaching or research also recognize that information from electronic resources must be properly credited. Proper citation allows others to trace the origin and development of ideas, theories, and research outcomes and helps support the integrity of the academic enterprise and needed mutual trust between those seeking and those disseminating knowledge.

Acknowledgement of contributions. Acknowledgement of the contributions of others means appropriately recognizing and crediting those who have contributed to a scholarly work whether the work is a manuscript, exhibit, or performance. Both recognition and accountability come with allocations of credit. Depending on their contributions, such others, including students, may be deserving of credit ranging from acknowledgement in a footnote to coauthorship. Regardless of whether faculty members work with students or colleagues, the work of all parties should be equitably acknowledged in a manner appropriate to the norms of their discipline.

Data. Researchers must acknowledge the source(s) of their data and accurately describe the method by which their data was gathered. Moreover, the fabrication or falsification of data or results constitutes a violation of ethical standards. While fabrication is defined as "making up data or results," falsification is "changing or misreporting data or results" (Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, p.16). Both of these actions interfere with the search for knowledge and truth and undermine trust both within and outside the academic community.

Conflict of interest. Research funded by corporate sponsors potentially leads to a situation in which a conflict of interest may arise. Researchers may feel pressure, for example, to conduct research in a way that would bias the results toward the desires of the sponsor or to reveal only those results that benefit the sponsor. Biomedical research, in particular, brings forth such concerns. Conflict of interest issues are not limited to corporate-sponsored research projects; conflict of interest situations may occur with government-sponsored research as well. Non-profit organizations and social advocacy groups also have the potential to place college and university researchers in situations that make it potentially difficult to conduct the sponsored research in an unbiased manner. Researchers must be able to publicly disclose their sources of funding and the intent of the research, as well as conduct their research in a manner consistent with the ethical standards for investigation in their respective disciplines. Scholars must not let the source of their funding nor the sponsors' goals cloud their own professional and scientific judgments regarding their research.

Other research concerns. The prevalence of the discussion of particular ethical concerns varies across disciplines because of the nature of the research process. For example, the American Sociological Association's "Code of Ethics" describes the importance of informed consent for research involving human subjects. That is, human subjects must be aware of the nature of the research as well as voluntarily agree to be a part of such research. The American Psychological Association discusses not only informed consent in their code of ethics, but also the importance of the humane use and care of animals in research. Disciplines that rely more heavily on archival research may say little about informed consent from human subjects, but may focus on the importance of obtaining permission to use archival data. Professional associations in the sciences, such as the American Chemical Society, are additionally concerned with providing safe working conditions for those who work in research laboratories.

Harassment. The most frequently discussed form of harassment is sexual harassment. As the AAUP statement on sexual harassment states, "no member of the academic community may sexually harass another" (p. 209). Such policies are applicable to faculty and students as well as to administrators, staff, other employees, and research subjects. The American Sociological Association notes that "sexual harassment may include sexual solicitation, physical advance, or verbal or non-verbal conduct that is sexual in nature" (p. 7). Some types of sexual harassment are quid pro quo, in which the sexual favors are presumably requested in exchange for a promised or implied future benefit, such as a higher grade or appointment to a position. Other conduct, namely that which creates a hostile or uncomfortable work environment, including the classroom environment, also constitutes sexual harassment. The code of ethics of many professional and disciplinary associations addresses the issue of sexual harassment, and faculty handbooks and other institutional documents typically include a set of procedures for dealing with situations in which alleged sexual harassment has occurred.

In addition, members of the academic community should not harass others on the basis of other personal and demographic characteristics, including race, ethnicity, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and disability. Regardless of the basis of harassing or demeaning behavior, victims of harassment may find it helpful to consult with faculty and administrators for advice on avenues of action in such situations.

Nondiscrimination and fair evaluation. In their work, members of the academic community should not engage in discrimination "based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed by law" (American Psychological Association, sec. 1.10). With regard to employment, members of the academic community should not "discriminate in hiring, promotion, salary, treatment, or any other conditions of employment or career development" (American Sociological Association, sec. 8). Furthermore, professors who have agreed to serve as reviewers of manuscripts, grant proposals, or other scholarly submissions, should evaluate those materials in a fair, objective, professional, and timely manner. These standards are also applicable to the evaluation of students' academic work. In "A Statement of the Association's Council: Freedom and Responsibility" the AAUP further explains, "Students are entitled to an atmosphere conducive to learning and to even-handed treatment in all aspects of the teacher-student relationship" (p. 135). The principle of fair and respectful treatment also applies to interactions with and evaluation of the work of other members of the academic community.

Allegations of ethical misconduct. Alleged ethical violations on the part of faculty are dealt with in a number of ways. A student or faculty member may choose to approach the faculty member thought to have engaged in ethical misconduct. One could also speak with another faculty member, chair of the department, or administrator about the alleged misconduct and seek advice about possible avenues of action. A hearing on the matter is one of the possible outcomes. Faculty members accused of ethical misconduct are entitled to academic due process. That is, the educational institution should follow a set of procedures already in place for dealing with such allegations. For faculty, the AAUP also sets forth a number of parameters related to the allegations of various types and methods for proceeding to pursue such allegations, particularly within the confines of the employing educational institution. Although most incidents of alleged misconduct are handled within such institutional frameworks, many disciplinary and professional associations have provisions for pursuing breaches of ethical conduct through mechanisms within those associations.


Students are guided by the same general ethical principles as faculty regarding their academic work. Academic honesty and intellectual integrity are central in the educational process. These two principles apply to academic work, including, but not limited to, papers, theses, assignments, laboratory reports, exams, quizzes, oral presentations, exhibits, and performances. Students can avoid plagiarism by proper citation of the resources that provide them with the ideas, words, and data that they present in their academic work. Although intellectual theft may not have been intended, careless note taking can also result in inadvertent plagiarism. Students must also not engage in the fabrication or falsification of sources, data, or results. If students work on a project together, the work of those students should be equitably acknowledged. Moreover, students must not engage in unauthorized collaboration nor give or receive inappropriate assistance with their academic work. Violation of ethical standards would be grounds for action against a student. The situational context of the violation along with the institutional norms and regulations affect the path of action. Although some situations involving a student's alleged violation of ethical standards may warrant action on the part of a faculty member or an administrative officer, other situations may warrant a hearing by a duly constituted committee to determine whether the alleged act occurred as well as the appropriate sanctions.

Some institutions of higher education have an honor code that makes clear that cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty are violations of ethical standards. These codes typically obligate students to practice academic integrity and avoid engaging in academic misconduct, but also to take action when they believe others have engaged in academic misconduct. The action taken by a fellow student who witnesses the ethical digression can range from directly confronting the alleged perpetrator to reporting the alleged act to individuals acting on the part of the institution, who may find it appropriate to convene a hearing panel for a judicial process in which students usually play an important role.

Broader Concerns

Some ethical standards apply to members of the academic community in their relationship with wider society. The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy says, "Society trusts that the results of research reflect an honest attempt by scientists to describe the world accurately and without bias" (preface). Many codes of ethics for professional disciplinary associations specifically recognize the consequences of research beyond its intended goal. For example, the American Chemical Society indicates that, "Chemists should understand and anticipate the environmental consequences of their work. Chemists have responsibility to avoid pollution and to protect the environment." Under the heading "Social Responsibility," the American Sociological Association says, "Sociologists are aware of the their professional and scientific responsibility to the communities and societies in which they live and work . When undertaking research, they striveto advance the science of sociology and to serve the public good" (Principle E). Both faculty and students need to be aware that their ideas and implications of their research may reach well beyond their own immediate goal.

Socialization to ethical principles needs to be more explicit and the mechanisms of social control within academic profession need to be strengthened in order to improve adherence to ethical principles. To improve faculty adherence to ethical principles, John M. Braxton and Allen E. Bayer suggest, in particular, that faculty and administrations need to (1) better articulate and codify the norms of professional behavior; (2) more explicitly socialize graduate students about the profession and its ethical obligations; (3) increasingly provide incentives for teaching [and research] behavior that is consistent with the standards of the profession; and (4) when necessary, impose sanctions for violations of those standards. Undergraduate and graduate students need to be made more aware of the expectations for their behavior as well as the consequences of the failure to meet those expectations.

If the ethical standards were more explicit, members of the academic community might be more likely to both act in accordance with such standards and speak out against the ethical misconduct of others in the academic community. In fact, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy says, "someone who has witnessed misconduct has an unmistakable obligation to act" (p. 18). Yet, allegations of misconduct may require certain types of confidentiality because of the situations or the parties involved. However, if colleges and universities deal with alleged misconduct in a less clandestine manner, it will be easier for members of the academic community, particularly newcomers, to distinguish between ethical and unethical behavior.

See also: Academic Freedom and Tenure; Faculty Research and Scholarship, Assessment of; Faculty Roles and Responsibilities; Human Subjects, Protection of; Scientific Misconduct.


Achten, Walter S., and Gibaldi, Joseph. 1985. The MLA Style Manual. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

American Association of University Professors (AAUP). 2001. AAUP Policy Documentsand Reports, 8TH EDITION. WASHINGTON, DC: AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS.

Braxton, John M., and Bayer, Alan E. 1999. Faculty Misconduct in Collegiate Teaching. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. 1995. On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Gibaldi, Joseph. 1999. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

Modern Language Association of America. 1992. "Statement of Professional Ethics." Profession 92:7579.

internet resources

American Chemical Society. 1994. "The Chemist's Code of Conduct and ASC Ethical Guidelines." <>.

American Psychological Association. 1992. "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct." <>.

American Sociological Association. 1997. "American Sociological Association Code of Ethics." <>.

Carol J. Auster


views updated Jun 27 2018



Ethics in the social sciences can be best understood by distinguishing normative ethics from metaethics. Normative ethics derives from the practical purpose of guiding how we ought to live and inquires into the proper guidelines of conduct for a responsible human being. Metaethics asks what ethics is, how it can be distinguished from other forms of human practice, and where it finds its proper place. Twentieth-century social science was dominated by normative ethical questions: questions about what ethical guidelines a professional social scientist should adopt. Normative ethics dominated the discussion because social scientists generally took the model of professional ethicsinstitutionalized in the codes of conduct and peer review committees of associations of (among others) legal or medical practitionersfor granted. This preoccupation with professionalist models reduced social scientists interest in metaethics and thus their capacity to understand what ethics is. Since the 1970s, however, processes of deprofessionalization or horizontalization have reduced the independence of professional practitioners, giving rise to new forms of institutionalizing ethics and increasing the demand and opportunity for metaethical reflection.

In the context of the rise of the welfare states demand for expertise, sociologists, in particular, propounded a folk ideology of professionalism, and its model of ethicsof safeguarding the quality of professional service by codes of conduct administered, in the case of conflict, by a committee of peerswas adopted by social scientists from the 1950s onward. Two famous cases in social psychology one in which religious informants seemed misinformed about researchers own beliefs (Smith 1957), and another where experimental subjects appeared to be put under intolerable stress (Milgram 1964)became paradigmatic in sensitizing many social scientists to the possible abuse of people researched. In addition, anthropologists and sociologists were worried by the use of research for U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and made the interests of people researched paramount in their first ethical codes. This resulted in guidelines of conduct that focused predominantly on the responsibility to avoid doing unnecessary harm to research subjectsby the experimental situation itself, by secret or clandestine research, or by insufficiently protecting the research subjects privacy. When institutionalized by social scientific associations around 1970, such codes and committees were primarily seen as a prerogative of professionals, whose expertise allowed them to speak for or interpret the interests of clients. This assumption of professional autonomy remains dominant today in many ways. Most social scientists think that an ethical code is a necessary and self-evident element of their profession, despite the fact that they managed without codes for half a century or more.

In society at large, however, professional autonomy decreased by changing practices of professional control. In the field of ethics, this was particularly manifested by the increasing insistence on the right to informed consent of people researched, adopted from the medical profession since the mid-1960s. If informed consent already horizontalized the professional experts relationship to some of his audiences, the increasing employment of social scientists outside the university system since the late 1970s forced them to be more explicitly responsible to private employers and sponsors as well. While some protested this dual loss of professional autonomy, others embraced the new ethics of accountability to sponsors and people researchedalthough neither group always knew how accountability was tied to the spread of neoliberal market models and auditing techniques throughout the academic world.

These developments implied new institutionalizations of ethical practice: From the 1980s onward, codes of conduct and good practice mushroomed, but now increasingly produced by universities or funding agencies rather than professional associations. These institutions internal review boards introduced ethical audits, for example, at the level of the grant application, thus increasing the possibility of external control of practitioners by ethical codification (while previously, codes were aimed at safeguarding the practitioners professional autonomy). Meanwhile, professional social science associations reduced their involvement in ethical arbitration (partly because, unlike the medical or legal professions, they could not effectively sanction violations of their codes) and fell back more insistently on the role of the ethical code in professional public relations and education. Surprisingly, such pleas for an education in ethics often focus on teaching by codes rather than by the more appropriate because more practice-orientedcasebook method.

This crisis of the professional model exacerbated existing problems with normative ethics, and especially with ethical codification. In the professional model, the ethical code presupposes a community of scholars who hold each other accountable to its guidelines, but this Enlightenment conception of social contract breaks down once infractions of these guidelines cannot be sanctioned. Moreover, when the membership of such communities is not exclusive, practitioners may find themselves subject to the rules of a multiplicity of organizations (including, of course, ordinary citizens duties)a situation in which most members of social scientific associations find themselves. The adoption of codes of conduct by universities and funding bodies is criticized for merely increasing the means of such institutions internal control, while falling short of achieving its actual goal: improving academic practice. This gives rise to the metaethical question of whether one can speak of an administrative fetishization of ethical codes, and whether this distracts from academic ethical awareness, so that ethical codes reduce rather than promote ethical practice (Bauman 1993). The answer to this question is not unequivocal: the codification of good practice may be a necessary instrument to sensitize practitioners to the possibility of doing harm (there is, for example, surprisingly little agreement on the ethics of research into human genetics). Once a code is in place, however, it can perform some of the less desirable functions mentioned above.

Other recent metaethical reflections radically broaden social scientific ethics, if only because they do not restrict themselves to normative ethics and the dos and donts of the research relationship. Inspired by philosophers such as Michel Foucault (1926-1984) or Charles Taylor, social scientists increasingly discuss ethics as the way in which people constitute themselvesand others as subjects, by not just considering what it is right to do but, more broadly, striving after what it is good to be (Taylor 1989, p. 3). In this way, ethics is recognized as part of the everyday technologies of the self, and therefore as a topic of social scientific study in its own right, claiming a place next to and in comparison with law, politics, or economics (among other things) in understanding human behavior. Thus, sociologists of culture can be seen to study ethics when discussing, for example, the Protestant or the romantic ethic.

The comparative study of ethics, started by the Finnish anthropologist and philosopher Edward Westermarck (1862-1939) around 1900 and only feebly followed up by anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s, may be revived. Such studies also open up spaces for alternative models of ethics: sociocultural anthropologists and archaeologists, for example, have explored a model of open-ended ethical negotiation (Meskell and Pels 2005)an ethics as necessary for the research relationship as it is for human behavior in general. Such explorations can also question the implicit distinction between fact and value that still often keeps the teaching of research methodology apart from the teaching of research ethics, impoverishing social science education in the process. It seems obvious that only the latter movetoward a full integration of ethics and methodologycan lead to a truly ethical social scientific practice, in which students are made aware of the situational, case-bound ethics of research from the moment they start their first training.


Bauman, Zygmunt. 1993. Postmodern Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Meskell, Lyn, and Peter Pels, eds. 2005. Embedding Ethics. New York and London: Berg.

Milgram, Stanley. 1964. Issues in the Study of Obedience: A Reply to Baumrind. American Psychologist 19: 848-852.

Smith, M. Brewster. 1957. Of Prophecy and Privacy: When Prophecy Fails, by L. Festinger, H. W. Riecken, and S. Schachter. Contemporary Psychology 2 (4): 89-92.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Peter Pels


views updated May 23 2018



Ethics, also commonly referred to as morality, is the broad discipline that deals with determining what is right and what is wrong. There are various approaches to ethics and a wide variety of ethical rules and principles put forward by different ethicists. Making moral decisions is something

that people do on a regular basis. Ethics assists individuals in deciding what to do when faced with various situations.

Ethics is also a crucial component of social life, as individuals' actions usually have an impact on others. Ethical systems are necessary for ordered human existence, but there is and has always been deep disagreement about the proper rules and principles to put in place. Ethics can be grounded in natural law, religious tenets, parental and family influence, educational experiences, life experiences, and cultural and societal expectations.


Ethics in business, or business ethics as it is often called, is the application of the discipline, principles, and theories of ethics to the organizational context. Business ethics have been defined as principles and standards that guide behavior in the world of business. Business ethics is also a descriptive term for the field of academic study in which many scholars conduct research and in which undergraduate and graduate students are exposed to ethics theory and practice, usually through the case method of analysis.

Ethical behavior in business is critical. When business firms are charged with infractions, and when employees of those firms come under legal investigation, there is a concern raised about moral behavior in business. Hence, the level of mutual trust, which is the foundation of our free-market economy, is threatened.

Although ethics in business has been an issue for academics, practitioners, and governmental regulators for decades, some believe that unethical, immoral, and/or illegal behavior is widespread in the business world. Numerous scandals in the late 1990s and early 2000s seemed to add credence to the criticism of business ethics. Corporate executives of WorldCom, a giant in the telecommunications field, admitted fraud and misrepresentation in financial statements. A similar scandal engulfed Enron at around the same time. Other notable ethical lapses were publicized involving ImClone, a biotechnological firm; Arthur Andersen, one of the largest and oldest public accounting firms; and HealthSouth, a large healthcare firm located in the southeast United States. These companies eventually suffered public humiliation, huge financial losses, and in some cases, bankruptcy or dissolution. The ethical and legal problems resulted in some corporate officials going to prison, many employees losing their jobs, and thousands of stockholders losing some or all of their savings invested in the firms' stock.

Although the examples mentioned involved top management, huge sums of money, and thousands of stake-holders, business ethics is also concerned with the day-today ethical dilemmas faced by millions of workers at all levels of business enterprise. It is the awareness of and judgments made in ethical dilemmas by all that determines the overall level of ethics in business. Thus, the field of business ethics is concerned not only with financial and accounting irregularities involving billions of dollars, but all kinds of moral and ethical questions, large and small, faced by those who work in business organizations.


Philosophers have studied and written about ethics for thousands of years, and there continues to be vigorous investigation into and debate about the best ethical principles. Although many different ethical theories have been developed through the ages, there are several broad categories that are commonly used to group different theories by their major traits. These groupings are: teleology, deontology, and virtue. A fourth category, relativism, may be added, although relativism is less an ethical theory than it is a broad claim about the nature of ethics.

Each of the three major types of theories is prescriptivethat is, they purport to determine what conduct is right and wrong, or to prescribe what people should (and should not) do. The prescriptions put forward by the theories in each category stem from different fundamental principles. For teleological theories, the fundamental principles focus on the consequences caused by human actions, while deontological theories of ethics focus on (1) the rights of all individuals and (2) the intentions of the person(s) performing an action. Deontological theories differ substantially from teleological views because they do not allow, for instance, harming some individuals in order to help (a greater number of) others. To the deontologist, each person must be treated with the same level of respect, and no one should be treated as a means to an end. Virtue ethics, unlike both teleology and deontology, emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, behind a certain action or set of actions instead of looking at duties or rules, as deontology does, or the outcomes of actions, as teleology does. Thus, an action is evaluated in terms of whether or not a good person would perform that action.

Teleological, deontological, and virtue theories are all universal theories, in that they purport to advance principles of morality that are permanent and applicable to everyone. In contrast, relativism states that there are no universal principles of ethics and that right and wrong are by different individuals and groups. The relativist does not accept that some ethical standards or values are superior to others and believes that standards of right and wrong change over time and are different across cultures.


Teleological theories of ethics, often referred to as consequentalist theories, focus, as the name indicates, on the consequences or outcomes of ethical decisions. For instance,

when evaluating whether or not it is ethical to use company time to deal with personal business, the relevant question would center on whether any harm came from the action. The consequentialist would look at what happened as a result of that choice. If, say, there were no loss of productivity as a result of conducting a piece of personal business while at work, then consequentialism theories would likely make no adverse ethical judgment about that choice. A commonly heard phrase justifying such choicesIt's not hurting anyoneis practically the consequentialist motto.

Consequentialist theories are very popular, largely because they are more concrete than deontological or virtue-based ones. It is much easier to determine the consequences of an actionthey can be seenthan it is to determine a person's intentions or their moral character. Consequentialism is widely used in the field of business ethics, most likely because businesses are about results, not intentions or character. The most common consequentialist theories are egoism and utilitarianism. These two theories differ in their focus on where the consequences of actions are evaluated. For egoism, the relevant consequences concern one's self; for utilitarianism, the overall impact on society is considered.

Egoism. Egoism is defined by self-interest, and defines right and wrong in terms of the consequences to one's self. An egoist would weigh an ethical dilemma or issue in terms of how different courses of action would affect his or her physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Egoists, when faced with business decisions, will choose the course of action that they believe will best serve their own interests.

Although it seems likely that egoism would potentially lead to unethical and/or illegal behavior, this philosophy of ethics is, to some degree, at the heart of a free-market economy. Since the time of political economist Adam Smith, advocates of a free market unencumbered by governmental regulation have argued that individuals, each pursuing their own self-interest, would actually benefit society at large.

This point of view is notably espoused by the famous economist Milton Friedman, who suggested that the only moral obligation of business is to make a profit and obey the law. However, it should be noted that Smith, Friedman, and most others who advocate unregulated commerce, acknowledge that some restraints on individuals' selfish impulses are required.

Utilitarianism. In the utilitarian approach to ethical reasoning, one emphasizes the utility, or the overall amount of good, that might be produced by an action or a decision. For example, companies decide to move their production facilities from one country to another. How much good is

Table 1
Approaches to Ethics in Business
Adapted from: Ferrell, Fraedrich, and Ferrell, 2002, p. 57.
TeleologicalActions are judged as ethical or unethical based on their results.
EgoismActions are judged as ethical or unethical based on the consequences to one's self. Actions that maximize self-interest are preferred.
UtilitarianismActions are judged as ethical or unethical based on the consequences to others. Actions that maximize the good (create the greatest good for the greatest number) are preferred.
DeontologicalActions are judged as ethical or unethical based on the inherent rights of the individual and the intentions of the actor. Individuals are to be treated as means and not ends. It is the action itself that must be judged and not its consequences.
JusticeActions are judged as ethical or unethical based on the fairness shown to those affected. Fairness may be determined by distributive, procedural, and/or interactional means.
RelativismActions are judged as ethical or unethical based on subjective factors that may vary from individual to individual, group to group, and culture to culture.

expected from the move? How much harm? If the good appears to outweigh the harm, the decision to move may be deemed an ethical one, by the utilitarian yardstick.

This approach also encompasses what has been referred to as cost-benefit analysis. In this, the costs and benefits of a decision, a policy, or an action are compared. Sometimes these can be measured in economic, social, human, or even emotional terms. When all the costs are added and compared with the results, if the benefits outweigh the costs, then the action may be considered ethical.

One fair criticism of this approach is that it is difficult to accurately measure costs and benefits. Another criticism is that the rights of those in the minority may be overlooked or even intentionally trampled if doing so provides an overall benefit to society as a whole.

Utilitarianism is like egoism in that it advocates judging actions by their consequences, but unlike egoism, utilitarianism focuses on determining the course of action that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Thus, it is the ends that determine the morality of an action and not the action itself (or the intent of the actor).

Utilitarianism is probably the dominant moral philosophy in business ethics. Utilitarianism is attractive to many business people, since the philosophy acknowledges that many actions result in good consequences for some, but bad consequences for others. This is certainly true of many decisions in business.


In addition to ethical theories about right and wrongprescriptive theories, sometimes also called normativethe field of business ethics consists of theories about how people make ethical decisions. This area of business ethics is more descriptive than prescriptive. There are many approaches to the individual ethical decision-making process in business. However, one of the more common was developed by James Rest and has been called the four-step or four-stage model of individual ethical decision-making. Numerous scholars have applied this theory in the business context. The four steps include: ethical issue recognition, ethical (moral) judgment, ethical (moral) intent, and ethical (moral) behavior.

Ethical Issue Recognition. Before a person can apply any standards of ethical philosophy to an issue, he or she must first comprehend that the issue has an ethical component. This means that the ethical decision-making process must be triggered or set in motion by the awareness of an ethical dilemma. Some individuals are likely to be more sensitive to potential ethical problems than others. Numerous factors can affect whether someone recognizes an ethical issue; some of these factors are discussed in the next section.

Ethical (Moral) Judgment. If an individual is confronted with a situation or issue that he or she recognizes as having an ethical component or posing an ethical dilemma, the individual will probably form some overall impression or judgment about the rightness or wrongness of the issue. The individual may reach this judgment in a variety of ways, following a particular ethical theory or a mixture of theories, as noted in the previous section on approaches to ethical decision-making.

Ethical (Moral) Intent. Once an individual reaches an ethical judgment about a situation or issue, the next stage in the decision-making process is to form a behavioral intent. That is, the individual decides what he or she will do (or not do) with regard to the perceived ethical dilemma.

According to research, ethical judgments are a strong predictor of behavioral intent. However, individuals do not always form intentions to behave that are in accord with their judgments, as various situational factors may act to influence the individual otherwise.

Ethical (Moral) Behavior. The final stage in the four-step model of ethical decision-making is to engage in some behavior with regard to the ethical dilemma. Research shows that behavioral intentions are the strongest predictor of actual behavior in general and ethical behavior in particular. However, individuals do not always behave consistent with either their judgments or intentions with regard to ethical issues. This is particularly a problem in the business context, as peer group members, supervisors, and organizational culture may influence individuals to act in ways that are inconsistent with their own moral judgments and behavioral intentions.


In general, there are three types of influences on ethical decision-making in business: (1) individual difference factors, (2) situational (organizational) factors, and (3) issue-related factors.

Individual Difference Factors. Individual difference factors are personal factors about an individual that may influence their sensitivity to ethical issues, their judgment about such issues, and their related behavior. Research has identified many personal characteristics that impact ethical decision-making. The individual difference factor that has received the most research support is cognitive moral development.

This framework, developed by Lawrence Kohlberg in the 1960s and extended by Kohlberg and other researchers in the subsequent years, helps to explain why different people make different evaluations when confronted with the same ethical issue. It posits that an individual's level of moral development affects their ethical issue recognition, judgment, behavioral intentions, and behavior.

According to the theory, individuals' level of moral development passes through stages as they mature. Theoretically, there are three major levels of development. The lowest level of moral development is termed the pre-conventional level. At the two stages of this level, the individual typically will evaluate ethical issues in light of a desire to avoid punishment and/or seek personal reward. The pre-conventional level of moral development is usually associated with small children or adolescents.

The middle level of development is called the conventional level. At the stages of the conventional level, the individual assesses ethical issues on the basis of the fairness to others and a desire to conform to societal rules and expectations. Thus, the individual looks outside him or herself to determine right and wrong. According to Kohlberg, most adults operate at the conventional level of moral reasoning.

The highest stage of moral development is the principled level. The principled level, the individual is likely to apply principles (which may be utilitarian, deontological, or justice) to ethical issues in an attempt to resolve them. According to Kohlberg, a principled person looks inside him or herself and is less likely to be influenced by situational (organizational) expectations.

The cognitive moral development framework is relevant to business ethics because it offers a powerful explanation of individual differences in ethical reasoning. Individuals at different levels of moral development are likely to think differently about ethical issues and resolve them differently.

Situational (Organizational) Factors. Individuals' ethical issue recognition, judgment, and behavior are affected by contextual factors. In the business ethics context, the organizational factors that affect ethical decision-making include the work group, the supervisor, organizational policies and procedures, organizational codes of conduct, and the overall organizational culture. Each of these factors, individually and collectively, can cause individuals to reach different conclusions about ethical issues than they would have on their own. This section looks at one of these organizational factors, codes of conduct, in more detail.

Codes of conduct are formal policies, procedures, and enforcement mechanisms that spell out the moral and ethical expectations of the organization. A key part of organizational codes of conduct are written ethics codes. Ethics codes are statements of the norms and beliefs of an organization. These norms and beliefs are generally proposed, discussed, and defined by the senior executives in the firm. Whatever process is used for their determination, the norms and beliefs are then disseminated throughout the firm.

An example of a code item would be, Employees of this company will not accept personal gifts with a monetary value over $25 in total from any business friend or associate, and they are expected to pay their full share of the costs for meals or other entertainment (concerts, the theater, sporting events, etc.) that have a value above $25 per person. Hosmer points out that the norms in an ethical code are generally expressed as a series of negative statements, for it is easier to list the things a person should not do than to be precise about the things a person should.

Almost all large companies and many small companies have ethics codes. However, in and of themselves ethics codes are unlikely to influence individuals to be more ethical in the conduct of business. To be effective, ethics codes must be part of a value system that permeates the culture of the organization. Executives must display genuine commitment to the ideals expressed in the written codeif their behavior is inconsistent with the formal code, the code's effectiveness will be reduced considerably.

At a minimum, the code of conduct must be specific to the ethical issues confronted in the particular industry or company. It should be the subject of ethics training that focuses on actual dilemmas likely to be faced by employees in the organization. The conduct code must contain communication mechanisms for the dissemination of the organizational ethical standards and for the reporting of perceived wrongdoing within the organization by employees.

Organizations must also ensure that perceived ethical violations are adequately investigated and that wrong-doing is punished. Research suggests that unless ethical behavior is rewarded and unethical behavior punished, that written codes of conduct are unlikely to be effective.

Issue-Related Factors. Conceptual research by Thomas Jones in the 1990s and subsequent empirical studies suggest that ethical issues in business must have a certain level of moral intensity before they will trigger ethical decision-making processes. Thus, individual and situational factors are unlikely to influence decision-making for issues considered by the individual to be minor.

Certain characteristics of issues determine their moral intensity. In general, the research suggests that issues with more serious consequences are more likely to reach the threshold level of intensity. Likewise, issues that are deemed by a societal consensus to be ethical or unethical are more likely to trigger ethical decision-making processes.


Ethics has been an important dimension of business and management practice for several decades, but in recent years, largely due to high-profile scandals, ethics has been placed on the center stage. Since the corporate scandals of the early-2000s, there has been vigorous debate about which ethical principles should prevail in the business world and about the proper role of government in enforcing morality in the marketplace. While there is no universal agreement on ethical principles or underlying theories, there has been wider agreement that the government has to take a more aggressive role in defining and enforcing ethical practice in the business world.

Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 to reform American business practices in response to corporate scandals. This act establishes new or enhanced standards for publicly-traded companies (it does not apply to privately-held companies). Following passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations were updated in 2005 to strengthen the standards for corporate compliance and ethics programs.

Business ethics is an exceedingly complicated area, one that has contemporary significance for all business practitioners. There are, however, guidelines in place for effective ethical decision making, and there is continued attention paid to developing and maintaining these guidelines. These all have their positive and negative sides, but taken together, they may assist the businessperson to steer toward the most ethical decision possible under a particular set of circumstances.

SEE ALSO Corporate Governance; Corporate Social Responsibility; Goals and Goal Setting; Mission and Vision Statements


Barnett, Tim, and Sean Valentine. Issue Contingencies and Marketers' Recognition of Ethical Issues, Ethical Judgments, and Behavioral Intentions. Journal of Business Research 57 (2004): 338346.

Beauchamp, Tom L., and Norman E. Bowie. Ethical Theory and Business. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Consequentialism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 9 February 2006. Available from:

Ferrell, O.C., John Fraedrich, and Linda Ferrell. Business Ethics. 7th ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

A Guide to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Available from:

Hosmer, LaRue Tone. The Ethics of Management. 6th ed. Homewood, IL: Irwin, 2007.

Hyatt, James C. Birth of the Ethics Industry. Business Ethics Summer 2005.

Kuhn, James W., and Donald W. Shriver, Jr. Beyond Success. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Lawrence, Anne T., James Weber, and James Post. Business and Society. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Paine, Lynn Sharp. Managing for Organizational Integrity. Harvard Business Review March-April 1994.

Trevino, Linda K., and Michael E. Brown. Managing to Be Ethical: Debunking Five Business Ethics Myths. Academy of Management Executive 18 (2004): 6981.


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The philosophical study of voluntary human action, with the purpose of determining what types of activity are good, right, and to be done (or bad, wrong, and not to be done) that man may live well. This article deals with the general features of ethics that are common to most types of classical ethical theory; of the ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas, with variant modern interpretations; and of the main schools of ethics in the Catholic tradition.

General Characteristics. As a philosophical study, ethics is a science, or intellectual habit, that treats information derived from man's natural experience of the problems of human life, from the point of view of natural reasoning. Thus, ethics (etymologically connected with Gr. θος, meaning custom or conduct) is equivalent in meaning to moral philosophy (from Lat. mos, meaning custom or behavior). It is also generally regarded as a practical science, in the sense that the objective of the study is not simply to know, but to know which actions should be done and which should be avoided.

The subject matter of ethics is voluntary human conduct: this includes all actions, and also omissions, over which man exercises personal control because he understands and wills these actions (and omissions) in relation to some end he has in view. Such conduct is voluntary, in contrast to not-voluntary activities (digestion of food, accidental falling), which are not under the direction of intellect and will. Included within the scope of ethics, however, are somewhat involuntary activities (e.g., visiting a dentist, doing disagreeable work) that are performed with repugnance, yet involve some degree of personal approval. Perhaps most moral actions are less than perfectly voluntary (see voluntarity). What the ethicist aims at, then, is a reflective, well-considered, and reasonable set of conclusions concerning the kinds of voluntary activities that may be judged good or suitable (or evil and unsuitable) for a human agent in the context of man's life as a whole, including his relations to other beings whom his actions influence in some significant way. Most systems of ethics also relate human actions to some overall goal of living: the knowing or loving of the perfect good, the higher welfare of the person or of his society, happiness or pleasure, or some such ideal or real end (see good, the supreme).

What distinguishes ethics from other studies of human conduct is the ethicist's interest in what constitutes a good human life, rather than in what makes a person, for example, a successful plumber or painter. The formal objective of ethics implies a distinctive meaning of right and wrong as generally applied to human conduct. Man's actions are studied in other disciplines also, in psychology, in sociology, even in history, but the primary interest in these areas is not concerned with what man "ought" to do but with "how" he operates, personally, socially, or in the context of mankind's past. Such studies are non-normative; they do not deal primarily with "ought" judgments. Politics treats human action in relation to state welfare; economics relates it to the production and distribution of wealth. In ancient and medieval thought, these two studies were parts of ethics; today, they have become non-normative, and are regarded as outside the scope of ethics. Law and theory of law are closer to ethics; they are normative. However, modern civil and criminal law deal only with activities that have some bearing on public welfare and are capable of regulation by human legislatures and courts.

Thomistic Ethics. By St. thomas aquinas, ethics is treated in the Exposition of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Some scholars regard this work as an impersonal explanation of Aristotle and not as a personal statement of Aquinas's own views. Others take it as what St. Thomas thought, in philosophy, concerning moral conduct. Aquinas described four kinds of rational order, each requiring a special intellectual habit (In 1 eth. 1.2). The habit of the philosophy of nature enables one to think of the order found to exist among all real beings, apart from any effect of man's activity (this habit includes even metaphysics). Next are the habits that enable one to order his own thinking (logic) and the production of useful or beautiful artifacts (art). Finally, there is the habit of ethics: "The order in voluntary actions belongs to the consideration of moral philosophy." Thomas, here, appears to speak personally about ethics, saying something that is not in Aristotle's text. "And so, to moral philosophy (which we are now treating) it is proper to think about human actions, as they are ordered among themselves and in relation to their ends. Now, I say human operations, those which issue from man's will according to the ordering of reason. Just as the subject matter of natural philosophy is motion, or mobile reality, so the subject matter of moral philosophy is human action as ordered to an end, or even man as he is acting voluntarily for the sake of an end" (ibid. 1.3).

From this, it is clear that St. Thomas regards ethics as a practical, even a productive, science: for it brings rational order into the domain of man's own voluntary acts. Yet, there is also a speculative character to Thomistic ethics, particularly in its consideration of the general theory of what constitutes good action. In a famous text (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 94.2) where Thomas explains how we know the most basic judgments of natural moral law, he parallels the work of ethics with that of metaphysics. As the metaphysician starts with the understanding of being and bases all his consequent judgments on it, so does the moral scientist start with the meaning of good and move to the initial judgment: "Good is to be done and sought after; evil [not-good] is to be avoided" (ibid. ). This is the starting point of all practical reasoning. Although this statement occurs in a theological work, it explains how a man comes to know what is morally good or evil in a natural way. "Since the good has the rational character of an end, and evil has the contrary meaning, as a consequence, reason naturally apprehends all things to which man has a natural inclination as goods and, therefore, as things to be sought after in working, and their contraries are apprehended as evils and as things to be avoided" (ibid. ). There follows, in the same text, a description of natural inclinations on the level of physical substance, of animal life, and of rational life. This third level is distinctive of man: the good in accord with reason is truly ethical.

More than this start, however, is needed to work out the rules of a good life: they cannot be deduced merely from the notion of good. Experience of the facts of human action, with adequate knowledge of the circumstances in which men operate, form the empirical base from which the ethicist must make practical judgments on the suitability of various kinds of human action. Thomistic ethics is not a deductive rationalism (see Klubertanz, "The Empiricism ").

Ethics and Moral Theology. Some difference of opinion is found among Thomists on the relation of ethics to moral theology. Much of the finest moral thought of Aquinas is expressed in his theological writings: the third books of both his Commentary on the Sentences and his Summa contra Gentiles, the disputed questions On Evil and On the Virtues, and the Summa theologiae, 1a2ae and 2a2ae. All are agreed that moral theology uses data and standards of judgment stemming from supernatural revelation. In the Bible, in the Fathers of the Church, in decisions of popes and councils, in the living tradition of Christianity, are many items of moral wisdom that are accepted on faith by Christians. These have been formed into a rich heritage of moral doctrine by theologians. A purely philosophical ethics cannot use such revealed knowledge. So, the start and the way of thinking of the moral theologian are different from those of the natural ethicist. St. Thomas puts it neatly: "As sacred doctrine is based on the light of faith, so is philosophy founded on the natural light of reason" (In Boeth. de Trin. 2.3).

Opposing Theories. Yet some Thomists indicate that a purely philosophical ethics would be an inadequate guide for the actual decisions of moral life [Jacques Maritain, Science and Wisdom (New York 1940) 174209]. They suggest that the fall of man and original sin, together with the whole life of grace, are facts of faith that escape the natural ethicist. Consequently, Maritain and others insist that the Christian ethicist should "philosophize within the faith," utilizing certain principles that are known from revelation or from moral theology. A Christian ethics will thus be a more adequate and practical discipline, because it is subalternated to theology.

Other Thomists have criticized Maritain's proposal as destructive of the distinctive character of ethics, or as a fusion of ethics with moral theology [J. M. Ramirez, OP, "De philosophic morali Christiana," Divus Thomas 14 (Fribourg 1936) 87122, 181204; M. J. Le Guillon, OP, in Bulletin Thomiste, 8.1 (1952) 626629; Klubertanz, "Ethics and Theology"]. No one denies that it is possible to develop a mixed moral science that would be useful to Christian believers unprepared to study all the details of moral theology. This would be a Christian ethics and not a purely philosophical ethics. It would not be convincing to people without the Catholic faith, and it would not serve as a bridge for ethical discussion with supporters of various types of natural ethics.

Ethical Presuppositions. The ethicist brings to his study certain convictions about the nature of the moral agent (man) and his relations to the rest of reality. Immanuel kant, in his Critique of Practical Reason, claimed that ethics is impossible unless one postulates (or takes for granted) three things: the immortality and freedom of man, and the existence of God [Kant Selections, ed. T. M. Greene (New York 1929) 368]. For Kant, the moral agent must be immortal, in order that there be a duration adequate to the fulfilment of moral law; and man must be free, to be able to determine his will according to some law of understanding; finally, ethics must admit a highest good, which implies the existence of God. Kant supposed these three postulates to be so, even though his theoretical philosophy was unable to establish them, for he felt that ethical reasoning needs them. Some modern Catholic writers have adopted this terminology ["The Postulates" in J. F. Leibell, Readings in Ethics (Chicago 1926) 35152]. There can be no objection to the contention that a valid ethics requires such convictions; however, in Thomism, these truths are not postulated, they are demonstrated in speculative philosophy. Some prior study of the philosophy of man, and possibly of metaphysics, is prerequisite to an understanding of ethics. The foundations of Thomistic ethics rest on the conclusions of the speculative philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

Morality of Human Action. Thomistic ethics is divided into the consideration of voluntary actions as they are related to the private good of the person (individual ethics) and as they are related to the common good (social ethics). In both divisions, the approach is teleological; that is, ethics treats the human act in terms of the purpose or end (telos ) to which it is ordered. This is not to say that "the end justifies the means"; whatever actions, or omissions, may be used to the attainment of an end that is good in itself, these means must also be good (or at least, in the abstract, morally neutral) in themselves, and the real circumstances that surround the action must be morally appropriate. There are, then, three determinants of the moral quality (goodness or evil) of a human action: (1) the end that is intended by the agent must be morally fitting; (2) the kind of action that is performed must be good, in the sense that it is not imprudent, unjust to others, intemperate, cowardly, or uncharitable (this determinant is the formal object); and (3) all the pertinent circumstances, required for the real context of the activity, must be present and reasonably suited to the nature of a human agent. (see morality.)

Human Nature. Each individual moral agent belongs to the human species and has a specific nature in common with his fellow men. One cannot be a human agent unless endowed with certain living capacities to apprehend and desire various aspects of bodily things (sense knowledge and appetite). Every human agent requires an animated body capable of exercising at least some of its animal functions. Thus, men after death are no longer moral agents. Moreover, each moral person must have some use of intellect and will, otherwise he is unable to bring about the rational ordering of his activities that entitles him to moral credit for good actions and punishment for evil ones.

While individual differences of mind and body distinguish one human being from another, it is not because of such differences that men are moral beings. Man's specific nature is so designed that certain actions are appropriate, and even peculiar, to his type of being. Briefly, what man does, which no other species does in the same way, is to reason about his experiences so that he may make free decisions to control his mental and bodily actions. His intellection and volition are performed in a distinctively human manner; neither brutes nor angels (man's closest neighbors in the hierarchy of being) understand or will, as man does.

Because of this community of human nature, all humans are subject to one and the same attraction of final causality. Irrespective of diversities of individual interest, all have the same specific purpose, or end, determined by their nature. This goal may be described from the viewpoint of man as the fullest possible use of all his capacities, under the direction of reason and will. This is what a Thomist means by happiness. From the side of that toward which human life is naturally directed, this ultimate goal is some being, great enough to be an inexhaustible object of human knowing and loving. This can only be a perfect being, God. All human actions that bring man nearer to the understanding and love of God are good; actions that remove man from this fulfilment are evil. (see man, natural end of.)

Elicited and Imperated Acts. In themselves, human acts are of two general types: elicited and imperated. Elicited actions are voluntary uses of understanding and will: they are begun and completed within the intellect and will of the agent. These are the actions that are most clearly moral. But man is not simply an immaterial being; he is capable of a variety of controlled functions of sensory cognition and appetition, and of many rationally controllable bodily activities. All of these sensory and bodily activities are assumed into moral life when open to rational direction. As such, lower activities are voluntary and are called imperated, or commanded, moral actions.

Both elicited and imperated actions imply moral responsibility in their agent. When reasonable and good, these acts have merit, and this entitles their agent to reward; when unreasonable and evil, such acts have demerit, and this calls for punishment. So, all such acts are imputable to their agent; he is responsible for their consequences to himself and to other persons.

Natural Moral Law. Ethical reasoning terminates in judgments that follow the pattern: This kind of action is morally good and should be done; or, this other kind of action is evil and should be omitted. A typical ethical judgment ("Immoderation in eating is to be avoided," or "It is good to help other persons but evil to harm them") is always somewhat general or universal in form. That is to say, ethical judgments may be regarded as rules for the guidance of any moral agent faced by a problem of a certain type. Such rules are regarded also, in Thomistic ethics, as moral laws. In this sense, law means: "a rational order made by a person who has charge of a community, for the sake of the common good, and promulgated." (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 90.4.) "Promulgated" here means made available to those subject to such an order.

Right Reason. The primary source of moral laws is God; as First Cause He has fashioned man and his environment so that some kinds of actions are appropriate and others are not. In a secondary sense, since man's intellect enables him to discover reasonable rules of conduct, the human understanding is a proximate source of moral law. The intelligent use of human understanding to work out moral laws is called right reasoning. Since right reason is founded on man's nature and the natures of other things in his environment, and since rational appraisal of the suitability or unsuitability of a given action occurs in the natural course of human life, judgments of right reason also are called natural laws.

Viewed as coming from God, a natural moral law is a participation by the human intellect in God's knowledge of what is right, that is, in eternal law. Seen in terms of human experience, a natural law of morality is simply man's best reasoned judgment of what is generally right or wrong in a given state of affairs. The rules of natural law are, then, "naturally" knowable in a double sense: (1) from the point of view of promulgation, they are implanted in the nature of man as a reasoning being; (2) from the point of view of the "order" that each moral law embodies, they are expressions of a naturally fitting interrelationship of a given kind of action (or omission) with the nature of man, placed in the real context of his action.

Obligation. Some authors also stress obligation as central to the character of moral law. The emphasis on the will of the lawgiver, in later scholasticism, tended to stress the binding character of law on its subjects. Other Thomistic ethicists think that obligation is not as central as what one might call the reasonable appropriateness of a given type of action. In other words, the ethicist is concerned not merely with what man "must" do (the performance of a minimal set of duties) but also with the discovery of what he should do in addition, in order fully to develop his distinctive capacities. Thus considered, the morally good thing transcends a lowest common denominator of what is ethically demanded, and embraces certain types of goodness that are not absolutely required but are nevertheless possible and good for a human agent. Where duty-ethics never requires a man to be a hero or to rise above the ordinary, Thomistic ethics looks to a maximal, or very best, effort on the part of each man as the ideal. Thus, some presentations (Oesterle, Bourke) stress the life of virtuee.g., perfected habits of intellect, will, and concupiscible and irascible appetitesmore than mere conformity to laws. In any case, the judgments of ethics (and of moral theology) must be applied by each person (through moral conscience and prudence) to his own moral problems: this the ethicist cannot do for another person.

Kinds of Ethics. There are various divisions of ethics depending upon the scope of the good that is envisioned. Individual ethics deals with the private good; domestic ethics with the good of a family; political ethics with the common good of a society, state, or nation; and international ethics with the broadest natural common good, that of mankind. A common good embraces not only the sum of private goods of the members of a community, but also the higher goods that can be attained by group activity.

Other Schools. While Thomism is central, various other schools of ethical thinking have enriched Catholic tradition. platonism and stoicism influenced the early Fathers (e.g., St. Augustine) to subordinate sensory goods to intellectual ones. Peter abelard, in the 12th century, stressed internal consent (intentio ) as most important to the moral act. When Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics became known in the 13th century, Catholic scholars such as St. Albert the Great and Aquinas adopted and modified some of the Aristotelian terminology and analyses of moral action. Franciscan moralists retained much of augustinianism, through the influence of St. bonaventure and john of la rochelle. duns scotus and william of ockham, in the 14th century, utilized the theme of "right reason," but stressed the Will of God as the source of moral legislation. Francisco suÁrez, in the 17th century, emphasized "human nature adequately considered," as the norm of moral judgment. Modern and contemporary ethics has become very diversified.

See Also: ethics, history of; existential ethics.

Bibliography: j. a. oesterle, Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1957). a. fagothey, Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice (2d ed. St. Louis 1959). v. j. bourke, Ethics (New York 1953). thomas aquinas, The Pocket Aquinas, ed. v. j. bourke (New York 1960). a. g. sertillanges, La Philosophie morale de saint Thomas d'Aquin (rev. ed. Paris 1946). m. wittman, Die Ethik des hl. Thomas von Aquin (Munich 1933). j. maritain, Neuf leçons sur les premières de la philosophie morale (Paris 1951); La Philosophie morale (Paris 1960). j. de finance, Ethica generalis (Rome 1959). j. messner, Social Ethics: Natural Law in the Modern World, tr. j. j. doherty (St. Louis 1949). g. p. klubertanz, "Ethics and Theology," The Modern Schoolman, 27 (St. Louis 194950) 2939; "The Empiricism of Thomistic Ethics," American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting 31 (Baltimore 1957) 124. i. t. eschmann, "St. Thomas's Approach to Moral Philosophy," ibid. 2536. j. leclerq, Les Grandes Lignes de la philosophie morale (new ed. Paris 1954). t.e. hill, Contemporary Ethical Theories (New York 1950). c. c. brinton, A History of Western Morals (New York 1959).

[v. j. bourke]


views updated May 21 2018


Buddhist canonical texts have no term that directly translates into the English word ethics; the closest term is śīla (moral discipline). Śīla is one of the threefold disciplines, along with prajÑĀ (wisdom) and mental cultivation (samādhi), which constitute the path leading to the end of suffering. Śīla is most closely identified with the widely known five moral precepts (pañcaśīla) of lay Buddhists: not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to have inappropriate sex, and not to use intoxicants. The Buddhist tradition has a notion of voluntary and gradualist moral expectations: Lay Buddhists may choose to take the five (in some Buddhist areas fewer) precepts or to take temporarily eight or ten precepts; novices take ten precepts and ordained monks and nuns take over two hundred precepts.

Sources of ethical thinking

In all areas of Buddhism, followers look to the "three treasures" for guidance: the Buddha as teacher, the dharma as the teaching, and the saṄgha as the community that transmits the dharma. With these three treasures, Buddhists have rich resources on ethical thinking, especially in the written materials communicating the dharma. The three major divisions of the Buddhist scriptural canon all contain ethical materials. The sūtras contain moral teachings and ethical reflection; the vinaya gives moral and behavioral rules for ordained Buddhists, and the abhidharma literature explores the psychology of morality. In addition to canonical literature, numerous commentaries and treatises of Buddhist schools contain ethical reflections.

The ethical teachings of scripture can be confirmed by one's own reflection. The sūtra's story of the Kālamas is often cited to show the Buddha's emphasis on personal reflection. In this tale the Buddha tells the Kālamas that they should not blindly accept teachings based on tradition, instruction from a respected teacher, or from any other sources without confirming these teachings through their own experience. He helps them see for themselves that actions motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion are unethical, and those motivated by the opposite of greed, hatred, or delusion are ethical.

Ethics as part of the path, and the relationship of ethics to suffering, emptiness, karma, and rebirth

Ethics is a major part of the Buddhist path that leads to the end of suffering. The path is sometimes conceived of as a threefold training in which śīla provides the foundation for samadhi and prajña. In the noble eightfold path, śīla includes the practices of right action, right speech, and right livelihood. The practice of moral discipline is supportive of the other practices in the path.

TheravĀda texts make a distinction between the ordinary path that leads to better rebirth and the noble path that leads to nirvĀṄa. On the ordinary path a person is partly motivated by what is gained through ethical action. On the noble path a person is gradually freed from the false idea of the self and from selfish motivations. An arhat who has completed the ordinary path is on the noble path; he or she is beyond ethics and karma (action) in the sense that the arhat spontaneously acts morally, and his or her actions no longer have good or bad karmic fruits. The arhat always acts morally without being attached to morality. Many Buddhist scholars (Harvey, Keown, and others) reject the conclusion of anthropological studies in Myanmar (Burma) that there were two separate distinct paths—an ordinary path leading to better rebirths for laypeople and a noble path leading to nirvaṇā for monks (Spiro, King). Instead, they argue that both lay and ordained Buddhists practice the ordinary path with the understanding that the noble path is the eventual long-term goal.

The Buddhist understanding of the nature of reality underscores the importance of ethics. The view that suffering is the nature of lives lived in ignorance emphasizes the need to alleviate suffering in others, as well as in oneself. The view of no-self (anātman) undercuts any clinging to individualistic gain: Since the idea of a separately existing self is false, then one must give up selfishly motivated actions. In MahĀyĀna Buddhism the understanding of ŚŪnyatĀ (emptiness) reinforces the idea that there are no independent, separately existing factors of existence. The realization of no-self, emptiness, and interdependence leads to an ethics of consideration for all beings and all things.

According to the Buddhist understanding of the natural law of karma, wholesome actions result in pleasant karmic results and unwholesome actions lead to unpleasant karmic results. But it is not true that an action is good simply because it has pleasant results. Instead, it has pleasant results because the action itself is good. The degree of goodness of an action is dependent on the motive for the action. There is a hierarchy of motives for good actions. As the Chinese monk-scholar Yinshun (b. 1906) explains it, "Lower people give for the sake of themselves. / Middle people give for their own liberation. / Those who give all for the benefit of others / Are called great people" (p. 228). The karmic result of an action depends not just on the action, but especially on the motive behind the action and on the manner in which it is performed.

The belief in karma and rebirth is important in initially motivating good behavior, in emphasizing its importance, in giving people more empathy for others to whom they were related in previous lives, and in supplying a longer-term perspective for seeing one's ethical development over lifetimes. The rarity of human rebirth makes each human life especially precious as an opportunity for moral and spiritual development.

Ordained and lay Buddhist ethics

For ordained monks and nuns, behavior is guided by the canonical texts in the vinaya. The vinaya contains rules, consequences for violating the rules, and explanations of the origin and interpretation of the rules. Some of the rules are what we would consider ethical guidelines; others are aimed at the smooth operation of the saṅgha and at maintaining the saṅgha's good reputation with lay Buddhists.

For lay Buddhists the foundation for leading a moral life is twofold: the restraints on behavior called for in the five permanent (or eight or ten temporary) precepts, and the encouragement to selfless giving called for in the primary moral virtue of dĀna (giving). Giving is the first Buddhist pĀramitĀ (perfection) and by far the most emphasized for lay Buddhists. Other perfections are śīla (moral virtue), kṣānti (patience), vīrya (vigor), dhyĀna (trance state), and prajñā (wisdom). These perfections are discussed in philosophical texts and are embodied by the Bodhisattva in jĀtaka tales, such as the one about ViŚvantara (Pāli, Vessantara), the prince who perfects dāna to the point of giving away even his wife and children. Buddhists understand that the precepts and the perfections can be followed at different spiritual levels: Giving done with thought for karmic results is not as good as giving that is performed because it is valued in itself. Giving done selflessly further lessens the false concept of self and thus moves the giver closer to wisdom.

Buddhist texts devote more attention to behavioral norms for ordained members of the saṅgha, but social and political ethics for the rest of society are not ignored. One of the best visions for social relationships is found in the Sigālovāda-sutta (Advice to Sigāla), in which the Buddha explains the value of mutually supportive and respectful relationships between parents and children, students and teachers, husbands and wives, friends and associates, employers and employees, and householders and renunciants. This particular text lays out the foundations for a harmonious lay community just as the vinaya texts do for a harmonious monastic community.

Buddhist texts that depict conversations between the Buddha and kings often impart political values, such as the Ten Duties of a King, in which the Buddha describes a benevolent monarch whose power is limited by the higher power of the dharma. In South and Southeast Asia, Buddhist ideas of benevolent kingship had great influence, especially as King AŚoka became the legendary ideal of Buddhist rulers. In East Asia, Buddhist ideas were usually superseded by Confucian political and social ideals.

Mahāyāna emphases

Mahāyāna Buddhism adds to Buddhist ethics a greater emphasis on the bodhisattva as the model for ethical behavior. Bodhisattvas embody the virtues, especially compassion and wisdom, to which all Buddhists should eventually aspire. The bodhisattva masters the perfections through a process of ten stages with the goal of gaining enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. Bodhisattva vows take several forms, including the vow made by the eighth-century Buddhist saint ŚĀntideva: "For as long as space endures / And for as long as living beings remain, / Until then may I too abide / To dispel the misery of the world." In East Asian Mahāyāna, an ideal lay Buddhist is the bodhisattva VimalakĪrti, whose wisdom and compassion is shown to outshine even that of monks.

In Theravāda Buddhism there is a strong emphasis on the vinaya, which governs the behavior of the ordained community. In Mahāyāna Buddhism outside India the unifying power of the vinaya has been less significant. East Asians often collapsed vinaya and śīla into a single concept (Chinese, jielü), thus diluting the distinctiveness of vinaya. In addition, many of the rules seemed irrelevant to a non-Indian cultural environment. In East Asia, the vinaya had to accommodate a very different culture and the already dominant social ethics of Confucianism.

In East Asia some Buddhist schools accepted the teachings of Buddhist morality but believed that it was impossible to follow the precepts correctly in the present age of the decline of the dharma. The Nichiren and Pure Land schools of Japan have developed this idea most clearly. In these schools the means to enlightenment comes from outside the unenlightened individual. Nichiren identified the source of that power as the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra), which encapsulated the powers of all buddhas and bodhisattvas; the Pure Land leader Shinran (1173–1263) identified the source as the compassionate power of AmitĀbha (Japanese, Amida) Buddha. In these schools, morality has never been seen as a means to an end, but rather as an expression of gratitude, and as empowered by something beyond the individual.

The Chinese Chan school of Buddhism and Tibetan tantra sometimes seem to use language that borders on antinomianism. By transcending the dualities of all things, including right and wrong and good and evil, there is the possibility of enlightenment. In fact, the problem is not with the duality of moral precepts, but with the self-centered clinging to moral precepts and the tendency toward self-righteousness.

Comparisons with Western ethics

Western anthropologists studying Theravāda Buddhism in Burma have argued for differing views of morality in monks and laypeople. Melford Spiro identified two forms of Buddhism: kammatic Buddhism of laypeople who followed morality in order to gain a better rebirth, and nibbānic Buddhism of the monks who followed the path to gain nibbana (Sanskrit, nirvāṇa). In both cases, the moral precepts are viewed as means to a goal, but to different goals. This understanding of Buddhist ethics places it closest to a Western utilitarian ethics where the goal is the reduction of suffering, and ethics is the means to that goal. In the decades after this anthropological work, other Buddhist scholars have argued from the anthropological data and from textual sources that a utilitarian view of ethics is not appropriate to Buddhism. Damien Keown and others have argued that the best way to understand Buddhist ethics is in terms of Aristotelian virtue ethics. The moral precepts are not to be followed just because they reduce suffering (although they do), but because they are good in themselves. That is, śīla is not just a means for gaining wisdom and concentration; śīla and wisdom are both part of the final goal of enlightenment and are interdependent. In The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (1992) Keown argued that Buddhist ethics are teleological ethics similar to Aristotelian ethics because "the virtues are the means to the gradual realization of the end through the incarnation of the end in the present" (p. 194). In Buddhism, of course, this gradual realization takes place over many lifetimes.

Peter Harvey summed up the field of Buddhist ethics in comparison to Western ethics by acknowledging that "the rich field of Buddhist ethics would be narrowed by wholly collapsing it into any single one of the Kantian, Aristotelian or Utilitarian models, though Buddhism agrees with each in respectively acknowledging the importance of (1) a good motivating will, (2) cultivation of character, and (3) the reduction of suffering in others and oneself" (p. 51).

Contemporary ethical issues

In the contemporary world, Buddhist scholars and leaders have sought to apply Buddhist ethics to moral questions of this age. This is most clearly evident in the engaged Buddhism and humanistic Buddhism movements. Engaged Buddhism is Thich Nhat Hanh's term for bringing Buddhism out of the monastery to deal with pressing social issues. The ideals of engaged Buddhism have been embraced by a wide range of Asian and Western Buddhist leaders and movements. In Chinese Buddhism, humanistic Buddhism (rensheng fojiao) was developed by the reformer Taixu (1890–1947), the scholar Yinshun, the Chan master Shengyan, and the Taiwanese nun Zhengyan (Cheng Yen) to refer to a form of modern Buddhism involved with current social issues such as education, poverty, pollution, and sickness.

Many current ethical issues are related to the first Buddhist precept: not to harm other beings. The first precept is central to Buddhist discussions of abortion, war, euthanasia, animal rights, environmentalism, and economic justice. Buddhist writings against war and military violence are some of the best known. Nhat Hanh, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Mahāghosānanda are some of the Buddhist leaders who have argued against violence as a means to resist the oppression in their countries. The Buddhist tradition has nothing quite like a "just war" tradition, only isolated instances where Buddhists have tried to justify violence by claiming their enemies were not truly human. The dominant tradition is pacifist.

Whether violence to one's own body is an acceptable means of protest is disputed. Nhat Hanh considered Vietnamese monks who performed self-immolation during the 1960s and 1970s to be bodhisattvas burning brightly for truth. Others, like the Dalai Lama and Shengyan, have rejected self-immolation, fasting, or other suicidal actions as political means. Early Buddhist scriptures specifically forbid suicide, but this question gets to the heart of the issue of whether bodhisattvas can violate the precepts in order to reduce the suffering of others. In this scenario a bodhisattva violates normative Buddhist ethics with the willingness to take on negative karmic effects in order to benefit other living beings. In one jātaka tale the bodhisattva offers his body as a meal to a hungry tigress to prevent her from eating her cubs. There is also a more controversial jātaka tale where the Buddha in a previous lifetime (as a bodhisattva) kills a bandit in order to save the lives of five hundred merchants that the bandit is about to kill. The understanding is that the action was motivated by compassion for both the merchants and the bandit, who would suffer terribly from the karmic fruits of these murders. The Dalai Lama, among others, has rejected such violations of Buddhist ethics on the basis that only a fully enlightened being could make such judgments.

See also:Nichiren School


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Barbara E. Reed


views updated May 14 2018

Ethics. The human concern for what is right and wrong, good and evil. Ethics arise from the human awareness of the future, combined with a lack of detailed knowledge about it. Lives and actions have to be projected into acknowledged but unknown futures, which at once makes evaluation inevitable: is a possible action right or wrong, wise or foolish, prudential or risky, good or evil? The attribution of value then extends to much else, and produces the characteristic recognition by humans of truth, beauty, and goodness, not as contingent or arbitrary, but as independent of the moment which gives rise to them—i.e. as absolutes. What counts as good or evil varies from age to age, culture to culture, though even then there is a considerable convergence which overrides what is known as cultural relativity.

Religions are aware of these universals as a matter of experience. They know that thoughts and actions based on the absolutes of truth, beauty, and goodness are to be endorsed and encouraged, and perhaps are to be rewarded after death, even if not in this life. Religious ethics are concerned, far more than secular ethics are, with the causes and consequences of evil. Nevetheless, they affirm (and give good grounds for doing so) the sovereignty of good.

On the basis of the experience of the human universal to make moral judgements and recognitions, religions have believed, in general, that there is a naturally good way to live and behave. In the E., this tends to be summarized under dharma, in the W. under natural law. Roughly speaking, if there is a consistent way for things to behave appropriately in the natural order (e.g. for stones to fall when dropped, or for the movement of planets to be predictable—hence the interest in the connections between those regularities and humans in astrology), it would be extremely odd if there were not a naturally good way for humans to live with each other. In the W., this led Aristotle to propose what has subsequently been elaborated as eudaimonism—human flourishing. What has been a matter of contest, within religions as well as between them, is whether what counts as ‘flourishing’ has been fixed for all time (e.g. in the word of God in revelation, whether Vedic, Biblical or Quranic), or whether there is a constant exegesis of the eudaimonic—no doubt on the basis of previous experience and revelation (where applicable), but nevertheless prepared to move and change. Aristotle, after all, could not imagine a world without slaves and the subordination of wives to husbands—it was both natural and eudaimonic for those concerned; we do not agree, because the detail of the eudaimonic is not fixed for all time in all respects.

On the same basis of the human universal to make judgements of what is right and wrong, good and evil, religions have developed many different styles of moral living and accountability. But all religions believe that we have some competence to take charge of the lives we project into whatever futures there may be, and to allow moral considerations to act upon our decisions. This is what it means to be human. If there is a basic human right (concerning which, in such terms, religions say little), it is the right to be human in this way—to be sufficiently free to exercise responsibility and accountability in this way.


Jewish ethics are derived from Torah as the God-given revelation of the way in which the broken human condition (described graphically in the opening chapters of Genesis) can be repaired. Humans are not radically evil (the story of Adam and Eve is not understood as Christians understand it): they are confronted by the two inclinations. In this context, law merges with morality—and it was a dispute among the rabbis whether an act to be moral had to go beyond what the law required (lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, ‘beyond the boundary of the law’). It is perhaps simplest to say that law is the necessary, but not the sufficient, condition of the good life. In the vital imitatio Dei (imitation of God), the details are all derived from Torah itself. Judaism, while based on law, is not legalistic. There are in fact only three moral absolutes, summarized in kiddush ha-Shem; otherwise, much rabbinic discussion is devoted to ranking obligations in order of priority: saving life having precedent over keeping the Sabbath is an example.


Christian ethics derive from the occasion when Jesus was asked, as teachers, especially rabbis, often were at that time, to give his kelal of Torah (choice of verse which summarizes Torah). His choice, the love of God and the love of one's neighbour, was neither unique nor controversial. This context-independent command of love had to be made context-specific: it had to be related to the circumstances in which the early and subsequent Christians found themselves. This is exactly what one finds Paul and others doing in the writings which became eventually the New Testament. For example, in 1 Corinthians, Paul states how they should deal with a case of incest, with dietary scruples, with marriage and virginity, with support of ministry, with the behaviour of women in services, until he bursts out, almost in exasperation, ‘I will show you a more excellent way’; and he reverts to the controlling, but context-independent, command of love. Christian ethics have oscillated through history between these extremes: on the one side, Situation Ethics, associated with Joseph Fletcher, emphasized the importance of each situation determining what is the most loving thing to do (echoing Augustine's, Ama, et fac quod vis, ‘Love, and do what you will’); on the other, when the pope defines a matter of morals (as also of faith), it is infallibly decided. Between the two, most Christians refer to the Bible (though with great division about whether or not the Bible, or at least the New Testament, should be treated as containing commands, applicable as non-negotiable law) and live their lives somewhere between the two extremes by the exercise of conscience. In the main forms of Christianity, conscience is the absolutely inviolable and sacrosanct centre of the person as human, as responsible for her or his decisions.


Since God has given to humans his guidance for their behaviour in the Qurʾān, Muslim ethics (akhlāq) are necessarily grounded in the Qurʾān. But as with all revelations, not every conceivable circumstance is covered in the Qurʾān. A second major source of guidance, therefore, lies in ḥadīth: Muḥammad and his Companions were the first living commentaries on Qurʾān, and although ḥadīth is not in the same category of authority as the Qurʾān, nevertheless the example of insān al-kāmil (the perfect man) is of constant importance. Life as God desires it was eventually formulated more systematically in the schools of shariʿa (law), which detail the things which are lawful and prohibited (al-halal wʾal haram) for a Muslim. However, by no means all things are specified, and the principle applies that whatever God has not forbidden is allowed (as a mark of his generosity), though always within the boundaries of ‘what God wills’ as revealed in more general terms in the Qurʾān. Lives are judged by God (judgement) on the basis of good and evil done, controlled always by intention (niyya).


Hinduism is a coalition of widely differing styles in religious life and belief, but shared in common is the belief that humans are bearers of souls (ātman) which are reborn many millions of times (saṃsāra)—so long, in fact, as they are entangled in bodies which desire transient appearances more than the truth. In each life, karma accumulates—for good and for ill—which is worked out in subsequent lives, until one orders one's life in the direction of release, which necessarily involves good actions. ‘Hinduism’ is a map of the many ways in which one may so live that the ātman attains its goal and obtains mokṣa (release). In other words, Hinduism is a map of dharma (appropriateness), and its own name for itself is sanātana dharma, everlasting dharma: in the Hindu way, it is dharma that has primacy as ethics, because it corresponds to ṛta, the cosmic order in which natural law is grounded. Central to this in relation to ethical behaviour is varṇāśramadharma, one's duty in relation to class/caste (varna) and the four stages of life (āśrama), which still obtains for many (though as always, not for all) Hindus.


While the Buddha rejected the Hindu belief in an undying ātman passing from life to life, he nevertheless affirmed continuity of consequence flowing from one life to another, working out the consequences of karma and taṇhā (thirst or clinging). His ‘middle way’ to enlightenment included the necessity for right conduct. This is summarized for laypeople in the Five Precepts (Pañca-śīla), which are not so much commands as promises which a person makes to himself/herself each morning; and the Ten Precepts for the members of monastic communities. The Buddha's own lives are exemplary in defining what is good—the plural ‘lives’ being a reminder that the Buddha-to-be appeared in previous lives, stories concerning which are found in the Jātaka collections. Of the Five Precepts, the first, ahiṃsā (non-injury) has further implications, because no exception was made for the killing of animals for sacrifice. Dāna (giving) developed as a substitute, leading to the characteristically dynamic relationship between lay-people and the saṅgha (monastic community), and to generosity at the heart of ethical life. The aim is the development of mahā-karuṇā, great and unlimited compassion.


The teaching of Confucius and of the Confucian school is addressed to the good of society, not simply to individual behaviour, or the attainment of individual goals. It is often summarized in the phrases, ‘The Three Bonds’ (between parent and child, husband and wife, ruler and subject), and ‘The Five Relationships’ (including those between brothers and between friends). Confucius believed that, with the help of heaven (tʾien) or a positive moral force (te), people can produce the all-important characteristics of jen and li. The moral issue can then be put as a question: ‘How would the wise person (sheng-jen) or ideal person (chün tzu) respond with te, and in accord with jen and li, in this situation?’ Although Confucian ethics may seem to stress the desirability of hierarchical or vertical relationships, in fact the key factor stressed by Confucius is shu (reciprocity), even if the principle of authority has also been upheld in these relationships. Confucianism was open to attack and criticism which also affected the development of the dominant school: see e.g. MO TZU, HSÜN TZU, and (at the root of Taoism) LAO TZU and CHUANG TZU.


‘Truthful living’ is the aim of Sikh life which necessarily embraces ethics (Ādi Granth 62). It requires a positive action and effort (kirat karna) in a constant work of service (seva) to others: ‘Only by the self-forgetting service of others can God be reached’ (AG 26). This is expressed particularly in vand chakna, sharing with others. Because all humans are subverted by haumai, this effort is not easy to initiate or sustain, but Sikhs receive help from the grace of God, the teachings of the scriptures, and the example of the Gurus.

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