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Moral acceptability

By Peter Bowden - posted Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Are Henson’s photographs of naked children morally acceptable? The debate has raged on over the last two weeks, with Cate Blanchett and the artistic community lined up for him. Kevin Rudd is against him. “Revolting” was the Prime Minister’s description. Most of us were uncertain as to who was right.

It would be convenient if we could use the thinking of moral philosophers over the centuries to provide us guidelines. Unfortunately we can’t. Moral philosophers are still arguing - they have only partly answered their own riddle - what is the difference between right and wrong?

But they have left us some guidelines, and we can use them, even though every one has its philosophical detractors, and all at times give contradictory answers.


Three moral theories in particular stand out from the many that have come down to us over the centuries: Virtue ethics, supposedly originating from Aristotle, Utilitarianism (or its broader brother - Consequentialism) and Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperatives. But we also have to include a fourth, from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty - in a concept that has been adopted by legislatures, philosophers and law enforcing agents around the world - Mill tells us that the only role a government has for interfering with our freedom is to stop us harming others:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Mill’s guideline is particularly appropriate in Bill Henson’s case. The first of the theories, Virtue Ethics, however is not too useful. In it modern guise it simply says that we should be virtuous. Various philosophers on the way through the last 2,500 years have tried to define virtue. David Hume even gave us a list of about 70 virtues. But we really cannot use Virtue Theory for it gives us no criteria against which to decide what is virtue. It is certainly not a theory we can use when there are sincere and intelligent people ranged on either side of a difficult ethical debate. Also there are too many contradictory virtues - truthfulness for instance can fall either way.

Utilitarianism, from Jeremy Bentham and JS Mill (again) says we decide the ethical merits of an action based on its consequences. If it causes happiness in others, it is good. If it causes unhappiness, or pain, or creates harm, it is bad. This is the ethical theory that Peter Singer uses (although with some strong caveats). However, it has also received considerable criticism. It is a theory that many accuse of permitting us to torture a terrorist to find the location of the ticking bomb, or to shoot down a hijacked plane full of innocent travellers, in order to prevent it being used for another 9-11. We can get around these concerns, as we will see, but the theory always has to overcome Bentham’s statement that utilitarianism tells us to seek the greatest good for the greatest number. But the greatest good may not always provide the ideal ethical path.

Kant’s Imperatives are two in number: if you are unwilling to allow everybody to adopt an activity whenever they wanted to, then that activity is not morally acceptable .Again lying is a simple example. We would be most unhappy if everybody believed that they could lie freely. But we encounter occasions when lying is necessary to save a life. So this Imperative is not universally useful.

The second Imperative, however, that we should not use anybody for our own purposes is a superb injunction that has found its way into most modern theories on moral behaviour. It is seen as an acceptable imperative, asking us to respect the autonomy, individuality and self respect of other people. It is a guideline that has no detractors.


The fourth concept, Mill’s views on liberty, can be translated into a simple statement. That those in authority can stop Bill Henson’s exhibition of naked children if we can prove that it causes them harm.

But the question of causing harm takes us much further than the simple causing of pain or even simpler suffering. Today’s philosophers, attempting to take us further than the philosophies of earlier centuries have proposed new theories, all built on beliefs of earlier times. Two are worth mentioning.

Tom Beauchamp and James Childress have developed an ethical thinking process that is relevant to human behaviour and that is taught in every medical faculty, every school of nursing around the world, It has four principles:

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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