Which ethical tradition do you most closely identify with?


I decided a long time ago that the notion of God just didn't make any sense. I was about 12 at the time and had been waiting for adults to tell me what Christianity was really about before realising that they already had told me and it was what they actually believed. The Church of Scotland Presbyterian version anyway. By the time I went to university I just assumed that religion wasn't going to play any part in my life and I was reading about humanism - in between chemistry texts!


Then I came across Buddhism and found out that here was a religious tradition that didn't involved believing in God or in anything claimed as a divinely revealed teaching. I was very impressed. For a start there didn't seem to be any conflict between science and Buddhism in the way that there has been and still is conflict between science and theistic religions : evolution vs creationism; Biblical truth vs linguistic text analysis; helio vs geocentrism... Not to mention the many other conflicts between theistic religions and archaeology, historical analysis. It also has a pretty sophisticated approach to ethics.



I didn't take a big part in the discussion forums for Effective Altruism. I added a few things, thinking that I go back with more on the subject.


Then didn't manage to do that!


But here is what I did contribute ... And the essay I wrote for the end of course assessment. I got 10/10 :-)


 What are the considerations you deem most important when deciding which charity to donate to?


My donations are partly in responses to specific current needs and campaigns, eg UNICEFs work in Syria and the current Greenpeace campaign to stop oil drilling in the Arctic; and partly towards longer term work in areas like climate change that I am concerned about, eg RSPB, Oxfam, Scottish Green Party.


I do not give donations to Christian-based charities like CAFOD or Salvation Army because they hold views that I disagree with, eg Catholic charities working in Africa but not prepared to recommend contraception, or the use of condoms to prevent spread of AIDS.


I do give donations to Buddhist-based charities (eg Karuna Trust, Green Tara Trust) because I'm familiar with their ethics and I know from personal experience that they work with those in need irrespective of their religion and without any 'strings attached' like trying to convert people to Buddhism.

ESSAY: Do we need reasons for acting ethically? If so, are there such reasons?

If only acting ethically was a self-evident truth and we all just did it without further ado. But we don't act. There are many examples, small and large scale, from lying to further self-interest, to a government lying about weapons of mass destruction to further its short-term political interests; to global corporations financing climate change denial to protect their short-term profits; to religions justifying rape and war with their particular holy book.

It would seem then that we need reasons for acting ethically to help us to actually do it.

Before pondering on what these reasons might be, we might first ask: Does it matter if we don’t act ethically? Would an unethical world not just be the outcome of survival of the fittest? Cruel acts have been justified with that argument: eugenics, ethnic cleansing, crusades. Two things come to my mind here:

All species are subject to natural selection. But non-human species don’t indulge in cruelty to each other. They take a life to support themselves and their offspring but they don’t go in for wholesale massacre beyond satisfying that basic need.

Human beings have a complex set of feeling and thinking responses to acts of cruelty, deceit and dishonesty. These are not restricted to ourself or our immediate family and friends. We call it our conscience.



Definitions of conscience are as follows:

- An awareness of morality in regard to one's behavior; a sense of right and wrong that urges one to act morally.

- A source of moral or ethical judgment or pronouncement: a document that serves as the nation's conscience.

- Conformity to one's own sense of right conduct.

- The part of the superego in psychoanalysis that judges the ethical nature of one's actions and thoughts and then transmits such determinations to the ego for consideration.

The word itself, conscience, is related to our general level of conscientiousness and would seem from these definitions to be an innate part of our specifically human conscientiousness, perhaps shared by any species with our sort of awareness of self.

In answer to the question does it matter if we don't act ethically, the short-term answer might be:  No, not much, usually. But the longer-term the answer might be : Yes it matters, because we are going against our human nature even though we’re not very good at honouring that nature. Yes, because we might bring to suffering to others. Yes, because we might bring harm to our home, family, countrymen and women, and even to our planet. Better to avoid and decrease suffering, not cause it.

We are in a moral dilemma: we don’t act ethically naturally but we have a natural awareness of morality in regard to our and others’ actions.  We need reasons to support our ethical conscience.

What reasons might we have for acting ethically?
Here are some tried and tested reasons:

 the appeal to power: god / dad / mum / the headmaster / your boss will punish you. This works quite well with kids until they get to age of demanding an answer to : “But why?”. To be fair the appeal to God’s power, ie Hell, worked pretty well for centuries. It’s not so effective these days when many of us no longer believe in it. The appeal to boss’s power is probably still quite effective though undermined by liberal-minded employee protection legislation :-).

the appeal to authority: it says so in the Bible / Koran / etc. This is pretty similar to the appeal to power and is dependent on people believing in god. An intelligent sense of history undermines this by showing how most religions used their authority to suit their own followers, and Devil take everyone else. Hardly a kindly ethic that.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you: This is from Matthew 7:12. It’s a version of the Golden Rule of ethical reciprocity (wiki) found in many other cultures and sources. It's pretty straightforward self-interest but it's got possibilities.

Karl Popper’s version is: The golden rule is a good standard which can perhaps even be improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they would be done by… (Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2 (1966 [1945]), p. 386

in Buddhism living ethically is described as part of living wisely: “Having analysed well all deeds of body, speech and mind, those who realise what benefits self and others, and always perform these, are wise.” (Nagarjuna, Precious Garland, v7. PDF downloadable though it’s a slightly different translation)

The Golden Rule takes us beyond mere belief in and obedience to God, beyond appeals to power, authority and punishment, by appealing to self-interest. It can be extended to include more altruistic sensibility as described by Popper. Buddhism takes this further by linking altruism and ethical sensibility with wisdom.

Whichever of these kinds of reasons for ethics appeals to us, let’s hope we manage to act ethically for the sake of ourselves and all other beings on this planet.

Score: 10/10 points

The essay successfully answers the question: the writer presents a clear argument and does a good job of justifying that argument. That is, the author does more than just state an opinion—she also clearly explains why that opinion is valid, for instance, by pointing out weaknesses with alternative views, by raising and responding to possible objections, and by clarifying the intuitions or principles that supports her view.
7 of 7 points

The essay is clearly structured, and the writing is clear.
3 of 3 points

Comment from one of the reviewers:
Good essay. Thought-provoking, insightful, well written.