What is Ethics? (A primer)

What is Ethics? (A primer)


Perplexingly for many, what is ethics? is a question that people have been struggling to answer for centuries. There are, in fact, many schools of thought as to how we might define the concept behind a seemingly straight-forward and easy to understand word.

Perhaps it is easier to start first with a compelling definition of what things might look like in the absence of ethical behaviour. The French Philosopher Albert Camus wrote1:

A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.

Of course, that doesn’t literally mean that individuals lacking ethical behaviour somehow shapeshift into some bestial form, but think for a moment upon how many examples of particularly poor and unethical behaviour end up being explained:

  • Rapists are often considered to have behaved like animals – the implication that they allowed base lusts to override common sense and decency2
  • Murderers and others who commit violent transgressions are likened to beasts
  • Those who commit particularly heinous crimes, other against individuals or en masse (e.g., Nazis) are considered monsters.

Thus, it could well be argued that Camus was referencing a popular, subconscious mechanism for describing unethical behaviour with this statement. There is an essence of logic in it, even if we don’t necessarily agree on what ethical behaviour is. A lack of ethical behaviour is demonstrative of something we consider to be less-than-human behaviour: it is where negative emotion or behaviour has taken over to the detriment of the self, of others, or both.

Why then is it often so hard to define what ethical behaviour is? Following on, why is there any relevance in reading about ethics in the information age? These are good questions. (Here, we are mixing ethics as a field and ethics as a behaviour, but for the purpose of this site we’ll usually consider the two to be interchangeable3)

The answer could be said to lay in Albert Camus’ statement, above. Even though it is difficult to describe what constitutes ethical behaviour, we need to discuss how we might behave ethically relating to information sciences, computing and modern communication, because a lack of ethics has the potential to cause significant misery and harm upon a great many people.

We should also establish from the outset that ethical or moral behaviour does not have a one to one correlation with that which is legally permitted. It is legally permitted, for instance, to be so very rich that you want for nothing, when others are so penniless they are unable to buy food for their families. It is legally permitted for owners of pharmaceutical companies to increase the price of their products from 50¢ a tablet to $1000 a tablet. It is legally permitted in many jurisdictions to change a rental agreement after a tenant has moved in to forbid pets, even knowing the current tenant rented the property with pets. Equally, it is common to see euthanasia legally prohibited in many jurisdictions, regardless of how much suffering a terminal patient may be forced to endure. In some countries, abortion may be legally forbidden even if it can be established with high certainty that carrying a child to term (or near to term) will result in the death of the mother, and even the child.

It is, in fact, trivially easy to find examples of behaviour that is legally permissible that we might (either collectively, or as individuals), be uneasy with (or indeed completely opposed to) from an ethical standpoint. In short: moving forward, don’t confuse that which is or is not legally allowed with that which ought or ought not be done.

I will follow the rules

Schools of Ethical Thought

There are quite a number of theories regarding how we might establish and even quantify the level of ethical behaviour in someone’s actions.

If you work in a modern business, it’s quite likely you’ve encountered one school of thought quite regularly, since it is exemplified by a great many Codes of Conduct promoted by businesses. A code of conduct is an example of what we would refer to as deontological ethics, the idea that ethics are a codified set of rules for what we ought to do, or ought not do. “We will treat all customers with respect” is a deontological rule – it states a duty, or an obligation to how we ought to behave in business. (It should be noted that many codes of conduct mix calls for particular ethical behaviour with lawful behaviour reasonably interchangeably.)

Here, in fact, we come to a dalliance with language that will be pervasive throughout all articles here: must vs ought.

In Ethics, Peter Cave writes4:

The moral ‘must’ is no moral hurricane destroying all immoralities in its way. There is no magical moral power to be found, if only we searched more diligently. The moral ‘must’ cannot prevent atrocities being committed in the name of power, politics or religion.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ought5 as:

Used to indicate duty or correctness, typically when criticising someone’s actions.


Used to indicate a desirable or expected state.

On the other hand, must6 is defined as:

Be obliged to; should (expressing necessity)

By example, consider the purchase of cigarettes, prohibited to minors in many countries. It is not uncommon to see statements such as: “You must show proof of age to buy”. The word must creates a stronger rule, with real consequential action of not following. If you do not supply proof of age, you will not be allowed to purchase cigarettes. If the sign read “You ought to show proof of age to buy”, it might equally imply that while desirable, you could elect not to do so, or that it might otherwise not be rigorously enforced. (Of course, in many situations people will not be asked for proof of age to purchase cigarettes, particularly if they are clearly adult in appearance – an alternate and more factually correct sign seen in many countries might instead read “You must show proof of age if you look under 25”.)

A common theme in philosophy is a tendency to err from issuing proscriptive statements – outright forbidding or enforcing of a train of thought or school of behaviour. Thus, you see ethical behaviour advocated or discussed in terms of ought in almost all cases – as Cave says, ‘must’ in relation to morality and ethics “is no moral hurricane destroying immoralities in its way”. We can say, “you must not commit genocide” to our hearts content, but such a directive, however appropriate, cannot in itself prevent genocide.

Deontology is, prima facie, a seemingly appropriate type of ethical definition, except that rigid adherents will quickly find themselves overwhelmed with a dizzying array of exceptions, loop-holes and qualifications to avoid being overwhelmed by seemingly even innocuous rules. “You ought to give aid to the homeless” may seem like a straight-forward rule, but without qualification it might equally imply that under all circumstances, at all times, you should give aid to the homeless, even if it is to your detriment, or perhaps even if it is to the point of rendering yourself homeless. Thus, exceptions and qualifications to the rule come into play. “You ought to give aid to the homeless when you are financially able to” might seem a good qualification, but what if you experience a sudden windfall and also have significant personal debts? “You ought to give aid to the homeless when you are financially able to and are in a personal position to do so” could be a new qualification, but what if there are no homeless near you? So the rule might be come, “You ought to give aid to homeless people that are near to you when you are financially able to and are in a personal position to do so.”

So we can see that even a reasonably simple deontological rule has the potential to require a rule-book just for its own interpretation and may in fact never be completely free of additional qualifications, depending on the complexity of the situation.

Another branch of ethics is referred to as utilitarianism. In its simplest form, it might be described as the “greatest happiness principle”. Modern fathers of utilitarianism are usually considered to be philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who each brought their own spin to the subject. (John Stuart Mill, for instance, felt that pleasures, as an arbiter of happiness according to Bentham, was too loose a term, and required a qualitative consideration – the pleasure of listening to a particularly moving piece of music for instance might be considered more appropriate than the pleasure of the orgasm brought on by a chance hedonistic encounter between two strangers in a park.)

Interestingly, it’s worth noting that in Positive Computing, Calvo and Peters push for consideration of wellbeing in the development of technology in what effectively reads as a utilitarian directive, noting7:

After all, it’s arguably our fundamental goal in life to pursue happiness.

The “greatest happiness principle” of utilitarianism might simply be put as “that which creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is right”. While there are some that find comfort in utilitarianism, and there are certainly aspects of it which align to modern morality, it is not always the case that we would consider the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people being an exemplification of ethical behaviour, particularly when we retrospectively evaluate previous social mores. Consider capital punishment – the death penalty. Few would dispute that in some earlier societies, capital punishment fulfilled a basic utilitarian promise. Yet the majority of people in many societies now find capital punishment to be repellently unethical behaviour.

Utilitarianism can also suffer the problem of turning into de-facto servants those whom are of most use to society. People are happiest when buildings are prevented from burning down. Thus, in order to ensure there are always more than enough firefighters available, utilitarianism followed to a complete conclusion might require all firefighters to work every day of the week, every week of the year. Other than rostered time off to eat and sleep, they should eschew holidays, weekends or family events in case they are required to put out a fire.

In actual fact, utilitarianism is a reasonably broad church of thought in and of itself. There is, for instance, a difference of opinion between act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism attempts to define values based on “if we do X, does that increase happiness?” Rule utilitarianism instead asks the hypothetical question, “if everyone did X, would that increase happiness?” Rule utilitarianism might be invoked to deal with particular behaviours such as lying; while there might be reasons to argue under act utilitarianism that in certain circumstances, lying is acceptable (e.g., lying to a person with Alzheimer’s asking after a deceased partner), rule utilitarianism would suggest lying is never acceptable, since if everyone did it, social order may very well collapse from a lack of trust.

Because of the rather nebulous view of “greatest happiness”, utilitarianism in its many forms falls in and out of favour, particularly in a modern context8.

Libertarians will typically argue a form of Epicurean ethics9, that being the most appropriate behaviour is that which does not infringe upon the rights or needs of others, yet still brings personal happiness. (In actual fact, the two aspects are almost reversed in terms of how they’re normally expressed.) Beyond this, everything is fair game. Epicurean ethics has undoubtedly served as influence on notions of the social contract10 – a definition of implied rights and behavioural requirements that come from being part of a society.

Virtue ethics attempts to resolve the dilemma of what is ethical by simply defining it as that which is virtuous behaviour; the challenge of course therein is subsequently defining that which is virtuous behaviour. There is risk in such schools of thoughts of either a regressive or even circular definition, and a tendency on brief inspection to equate virtue ethics with prudish attitudes. Virtue ethics don’t so much as proscribe hedonistic11 pleasures, but instead promote ethical behaviour as a means of establishing a framework around how you might be say, remembered after you die, or more simply, after you have interacted with someone. Do you want people to believe you are honest or dishonest? Would you prefer people to trust you or mistrust you? Would you like to be respected as being fair, or feared for being unfair? You might consider virtue based ethics to be a form of reputation-focus. An adherent and practiser of virtue-based ethics measure potential actions against whether or not such an action will contribute positively to his or her reputation12.

Existentialism brings new questions and frameworks to ethics – are ethics a construct of us having free will? Do ethics independently exist of our consideration of them? Are ethics absolute, or relative? Cultural relativism is often a charged area of ethical consideration and behaviour. In some societies it is still considered appropriate behaviour to use corporal punishment on adulterers, or to require men who engage in homosexual activities to be executed. Some societies promote female circumcision, while others describe the same act as female genital mutilation. Do we accept such attitudes as subjectively ethical in the framework of the society they originate in, or is there another means of objectively evaluating behaviour regardless of the cultural framework it is done (or viewed) within? These sorts of questions become important when trying to differentiate between groups of people who have different ethical standpoints about the same scenario.

Of course, there’s also the theory that ethics don’t actually exist at all – that what we refer to as ethics is simply a collective framework we derive by trial and error13. It’s worth appreciating though that even if ethics don’t actually exist – even if they’re just some framework of ideals that are developed over time (and continue to evolve over time), that doesn’t invalidate the appeal to adhere to a particular set of behavioural traits that are, at any point in time, defined as ‘ethical’.

None of the above so far has considered the influence of religion (positive or negative) on ethical deliberations. Are ethical frameworks divinely inspired? If so, from whence does a divinity find the inspiration for the ethics? If two religions differ on what constitutes ethical behaviour, how can this be reconciled? And if ethics are divinely inspired, what can be said of an atheist who, in a particular situation, behaves with greater ethical integrity than a believer?

So which theory is right about ‘right and wrong’?

If there are so many different schools of thought about right and wrong, then which theory is right, and which theory is wrong? Perhaps all, perhaps none. The subject of ethics has been debated since the earliest history of philosophy; for instance, both Socrates and Aristotle had many things to say on the subject themselves.

The short answer then is that we don’t know which theories on ethics are right, and which are not, and may never actually agree on this. Even if there is a truly objective view of ethics to be determined or discovered, it will not guarantee everyone coming to instant agreement on the subject. After all, there are still those who believe the earth is flat, and there are yet others who believe the earth, or at least the sun, are at the centre of the universe. (To paraphrase an aphorism, bad ideas don’t die, merely the people who hold them.)

If we cannot come to a conclusion about what defines ethics, how can we be expected to behave ethically, or expect others to do so?

Many people have personal opinions of what constitutes right and wrong. Simply because these opinions are not articulated as an ethical theory does not invalidate them, and in the absence of universal consensus on right and wrong, they may at least be a valid starting point for many. Following from this, holding an open mind and being prepared to evolve those opinions can allow for adaptation and improvement over a lifetime.

Arguably, it may be the case that ethics are a mix of all schools of thought, depending on the circumstance, developed and evolving. There’s also the differentiation between personal ethics and broader ethical frameworks that may be pursued within business, groups one is a member of, families or society as a whole, which do not have a one-to-one correlation. (If you drill down the ethical values of any particular individual, you’ll certainly find that they are a mix of the different approaches, depending on the particular circumstances of the situation.)

Even without consensus over what constitutes ethical behaviour, history is replete with examples of humans discussing, theorising and adjusting our attitudes over time. Society has debated war, universal health care, capital punishment, the purpose of the law, welfare, and a myriad of other topics without establishing a direct reference to absolute right and absolute wrong. Thus a discussion about ethics in the information age is simply another aspect of the age-old debates we’ve been having for centuries – indeed, for millennia.

Ethics in Technology

Almost every technology professional will be in some way exposed to at least a minor variant of ethics in technology via professional codes of conduct, or corporate codes of conduct. Yet, these are often quite primitive, highly focused on legally required behaviour (as opposed to morally), and are not in any way standard for the industry, unlike other fields of expertise.

Consider by comparison, medical professionals. While the notion that doctors literally swear to uphold the actual Hippocratic oath14 is in fact a television and fictional trope, almost all countries do in fact codify some code of conduct for medical practitioners. The Medical Board of Australia, for instance, issues a code of conduct that15:

describes what is expected of all doctors registered to practice medicine in Australia. It sets out the principles that characterise good medical practice and makes explicit the standards of ethical and professional conduct expected of doctors by their professional peers and the community.

(Emphasis mine.)

In an exchange with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), January 24, 2017, the act of swearing to adhere to the code of conduct was further clarified:

Under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law, as in force in each state and territory (the National Law), a National Health Practitioner Board ‘may develop and approve codes and guidelines’ (section 39). Section 41 states that a code ‘approved by a National Board is admissible in proceedings under this Law or a law of a co-regulatory jurisdiction against a health practitioner registered by the Board as evidence of what constitutes appropriate professional conduct or practice for the health profession.’

In Good medical practice: A code of conduct for doctors in Australia, the Medical Board of Australia describes what is expected of all registered medical practitioners. The code applies to all medical practitioners regardless of their area of practice or specialty. The other Health Practitioner National Boards each have a code of conduct (some Boards have a common code).

When a medical practitioner applies for registration, they must sign a declaration which includes the following statement, ‘I undertake to comply with all relevant legislation and Board registration standards, codes and guidelines.’

The lack of global standards for technology professionals and the multitude of ways the field can be entered results in a somewhat lackadaisical approach to ethical standards in practice. Some particular specialities will recommend standards of behaviour – system administration guilds for instance are particularly mindful of this. The System Administrators Guild of Australia (SAGE-AU), precursor to the Information Technology Professionals Association (ITPA) for instance, defines an actual code of ethics, for which they state16:

Members of the ITPA are required to abide by our code of ethics at all times – failure to do so may result in exclusion from the organisation.

Yet, given ITPA is an organisation one must elect to join in the first place, we see the inherent challenge – with no standard body for technology professionals to become members of, in the same way that medical professionals in each country will need to become a member of, stated adherence to a broad code of ethics is not required in order to be a technology professional.

Technology has become increasingly pervasive, having impacts on almost all aspects of society, and altering the way we think and work. It’s even been suggested that the net result of changes is that the mind (at least for some) now extends beyond the traditional definition, with some people using technology (e.g., SmartPhones) on a daily basis to augment their behaviour and activity17.

In Positive Computing, Calvo and Peters state18:

This growing interest in social good among technology professionals is part of a larger emerging public concern for how our digital experience is impacting our emotions, our quality of life, and our happiness. We are gradually leaving behind the stark mechanical push for productivity and efficiency that characterized the early age of computing and maturing into a new era in which people demand that technology contribute to their wellbeing as well as some kind of net social gain.

While not explicitly referring to ethics, it is a reasonable assumption to draw a parallel between technology developed for and in mind of increasing or sustaining human wellbeing and ethical behaviour within technology.

The historical lack of focus on wellbeing and positive approaches to technology is arguably in part to an engineering-led approach to development. This is the archetypal tail wags the dog19 scenario20:

but computers are especially good at giving people what programmers think we want at the expense of giving us what we really do.

This effectively returns us to the problem posed in the introductory post, …where angels fear to tread; just because something can be done with technology, ought it be done?

Further Reading

You could, quite literally, spend the rest of your life reading about ethics. However, for a broad overview, the excellent and highly approachable Ethics by Peter Cave is recommended. Publisher and ISBN details are available in the footnotes, below.

If you’ve not already read it, please also read …where angels fear to tread, the introductory post to this site.


  1. Frequently quoted, without reference to original text.
  2. Indeed, many who rail against sexual liberation will also compare people who are free with their sexual expression to animals as well.
  3. Formal philosophy would beg to differ here, but as the title suggests, this is more a primer.
  4. Ethics, Peter Cave (2015), One World Publications, 978-1-7804-576-3
  5. Oxford Dictionary, ought
  6. Oxford Dictionary, must
  7. Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing and Human Potential, Rafael Calvo and Dorian Peters (2014), The MIT Press, 978-0-262-02815-8
  8. It might be argued that utilitarianism becomes more challenging to endorse as society becomes more complex.
  9. A parallel and reasonably similar form of Epicurean ethics would be egoism. While there may be some differences argued, they’re similar enough for our purposes.
  10. Perhaps the most seminal work on the social contract came from Thomas Hobbes’ book, Leviathan. Published in 1651, Leviathan  discussed obligations of the state (and the ruler of the state – for Hobbes, an absolute monarch) towards the individual, and the individual, the state. Since no literal contract is signed between the individual and the state, obligations within a social contract are effectively considered sealed or agreed to by being born into a society.
  11. In fact the notion of ‘hedons’ was proposed as a unit of measure for happiness for variants of utilitarianism.
  12. There are some branches of thought that suggest Epicurean ethics are sufficiently different from egoism that Epicurean approaches are in fact virtue ethics. This is a discussion beyond the scope of our topic here.
  13. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J. L. Mackie (1991), Penguin Books, 978-01-401-35589
  14. See US National Library of Medicine page for Hippocratic Oath
  15. Medical Board of Australia Code of Conduct, March 2014 – See section 1.1, ‘Purpose of the Code’
  16. ITPA Code of Ethics Web Page
  17. An excellent overview of this theory is available via the March 18 2017 Philosophy Bites Podcast, Andy Clark on the Extended Mind
  18. Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing and Human Potential, Rafael Calvo & Dorian Peters (2014), The MIT Press, 978-0-262-02815-8
  19. Merriam-Webster, Tail wagging the dog
  20. Digital vs Human: How we’ll live, love and think in the future, Richard Watson (2016), Scribe, 978-1-925321-17-3
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