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Morals or ethics

By John Turner - posted Friday, 11 July 2008

My first comments are that morals require definitions and vary for specific cultures. What is considered normal and moral in one culture may be rated an abomination in another. An example would be the attitude to female genital operations in some cultures compared to our society’s attitude to such practices. In contrast properly performed male circumcision in childhood or adulthood has now been proved to have many substantial health benefits for both males and any future partners. Bear this in mind for later in this article as arguments on these matters depend on justice and ethics rather than morals.

In society there are always individuals and groups who object to the behaviour of other people. Some of these individuals or groups are active moral crusaders. A few churchmen and some politicians in Australia come to mind. In his Doubter’s Companion J. R. Saul describes moral crusades as:

Public activity undertaken by middle-aged men who are cheating on their wives or diddling little boys. Moral crusades are particularly popular among … politicians who can’t think of anything useful to do with their mandates and religious professionals suffering from a personal inability to communicate with their god.


How true much of that is for many “religious professionals” of recent notoriety!

Religion, of any variety does not have a monopoly on precepts for ethical or moral behaviour. Many religious texts, for example in many places in the Old Testament, present poor models for appropriate behaviour.

Modern science is leading humanity (albeit very slowly) towards a charter for rational, logical moral and ethical behaviour. The basic problem for the fundamentalist religious followers is that their religious texts are their sole science textbooks. Educated, enlightened people these days increasingly regard such texts as irrelevant. They were written long before the scales fell from our eyes regarding what we now accept as truth: such as Kepler and others proving that the sun (and not the earth) is the centre of our relatively small solar system; that atomic "theory" has transformed our understanding of electronics, chemical reactions, etc; and that neo-Darwinian evolution (further enlightened by the contributions of Mendel, Watson and Crick, et al) is now established fact. All these things (and many more) have altered our views on ethical practices.

Religions simply do not seem able to handle issues such as homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, contraception in an overcrowded planet, stem cell research, and so on. But it is these inexorable changes in modern society that have caused a major re-think of ethics and moral concepts.

According to Saul, and I agree with him, ethics are more important and have greater societal consequences than morals - morals and ethics are not synonymous. Saul shows that some of his thoughts are derived from Aristotle when he states, "According to Aristotle we do have a sense of the just and the unjust. And that quality - in part ethics, in part instinct - makes us whole."

In the opening of “On Equilibrium” Saul states, "Common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and reason qualities are most effective in a society when they are recognised as of equal, universal value and so integrated into our normal life”. Note that morals rate no mention in his list.


Robert Ardrey attributed the development of our ability to co-operate with our associates, and our sense of justice, to the development of our instincts when for millions of years our branch of the primate family hunted for a living. Those successive groups of family and associates, from near ape to near man and ultimately to man, best co-operating in the protection of the hunt to feed themselves and their dependents succeeded, survived and spread. Co-operating and sharing by definition require a sense of justice. Over a long period of time (equivalent to about 250,000 generations as now known - but maybe many more) this sense tended to become innate. Now children reinforce their innate sense of justice from their dealings with their peers, their parents and other influential adults such as teachers, sports team coaches and game referees. Undermining that innate sense either deliberately by for example, indoctrination or by poor example contributes significantly to societal problems.

Christ it is said advocated turning the other cheek, however, that concept has been experimentally shown to be a poor rule for any society when under that rule cheats are allowed to prosper. Australian sociologist and philosopher Peter Singer (in How are we to live) quoted experiments which showed that “tit for tat” is a far more sensible rule. An ethical person does not initiate harm to others but does not let unjust behaviour towards himself or society be either rewarded or allowed to pass unpunished or at least uncorrected. That is “tit for tat”. Basically our system of law attempts to apply “tit for tat” combined with elements of rehabilitation.

A pertinent passage from Ardrey’s writings is:

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About the Author

John Turner has an applied science degree on top of a diploma in metallurgy.

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