Introduction to ethics

by David Stone

read : Introduction to Ethics part 01
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Another of way of making decisions about what is right and wrong is to look at the consequences of the proposed action. One way of doing this is to argue that what is right leads to people being happy. This is the criterion to use in assessing whether something is right or wrong.

A few people make decisions on the basis of what makes them happy as individuals. This approach is called hedonism.

Others follow the system of utilitarianism. This argues that in a given situation the right course of action is the one that would produce the greatest number of people.

On this view, ethics is about judging the amount of pleasure and pain created by the different choices available. Although superficially attractive and straightforward, it raises a number of problems.

First are the difficulties of defining and assessing amounts of pleasure and pain.

Secondly there is the problem of deciding how to resolve situations where people have to compete for what seem to be equal amounts of pleasure for each of them.

Thirdly there is the crucial objection that what is right and wrong should not be based merely on the consequences of an action. It needs to consider the motives and intentions of the people carrying out the action. Do the ends always justify the means?

All you need is love…

A variant of the utilitarian approach is situation ethics. In this case, although we allow our moral principles to guide us, we set them aside if in a particular situation the most loving course of action lies in a different direction.

Individual choice is important but not to the exclusion of our fellow human beings.

Once again, the focus is on measuring the consequences of a particular moral choice.

Critics of this approach doubt whether the ‘most loving’ course of action can be calculated quite so easily. When does a ‘situation’ begin and end? And what happens when a situation arises where we need to choose whom to love?

In addition, no one has successfully demonstrated that the principle of love really should be allowed to exercise a right of veto over everything else, including, for example, the principle of justice.

Where there’s a will…

A further way of deciding right and wrong is based on the ideas of existentialism. This sees everything as essentially meaningless, apart from the fact that I exist and have the ability to make decisions and choices. Morality is therefore no more or less than what I decide it is.

A variant of this, the principle of universalizability, seeks to avoid the obvious extremes of self-interest. This says that a right choice is one in which the person tries to choose what everyone else in the same situation would choose.

However, this approach to morality fails to acknowledge that there is more to being human than making individual choices here and now. We belong to communities with shared values and ancient traditions. Individual choice is important, but not to the exclusion of our fellow human beings.

Going by the book…

Another way of seeking guidance about right and wrong is to look for an external source of authority that we ought to obey. For many people, this is one of the particular benefits of religious faith. If the available evidence has persuaded us that a god exists, then we’re also likely to value what that god has to say about how we should live.

The idea is that a superhuman being has revealed what is right and wrong. This may be through certain sacred scriptures, perhaps through special people. Not that this is necessarily the final word. For example, most Christians see the Bible as a collection of writing inspired by God. They seek to use it to guide their moral thinking. But they come to a variety of conclusions as to what it means and how it applies today.

One problem is that many of the situations and questions that we are faced with weren’t around when religious documents were written. So even if some people believe in a God who has revealed the principles of what is right and wrong, they still have to decide how such principles work out in practice. They also have to decide what they are going to do if these principles seem to conflict.

A further problem coes when these people try to persuade others that they too should follow what the god they believe in is a particular issue in modern Western society as common values that past generations took for granted come under increasing pressure. We may allow someone else the right to their moral views – but only if they keep them to themselves and leave us alone!

We may allow someone else the right to their moral views – but only if they keep them to themselves and leave us alone!


Many of the ethical issues faced by healthcare professionals in their daily work are straightforward. However, working out what’s right and wrong can sometimes be a complex business.

Each of the above approaches has something to contribute in helping us to resolve such dilemmas and make ethical decisions responsibly.

In hard cases we need to pay attention to a whole spectrum of factors. These include the principles we think through, how we feel about the situations we face and our underlying motives. We also need to consider the consequences of our decisions, our responsibility within society for the choices we make and, if we believe in God, what we understand his will to be. A comprehensive ethical framework needs to include all these aspects.

Further Reading

Making ethical decisions in medicine, by Peter Saunders. Chapter 8 of ‘Christian Choices in Healthcare’. CMF/IVP. 1995.

Previously a medical doctor, David Stone is now vicar of St Jude’s Church in Earls Court, London and a member of the Church of England’s General Synod.

Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 1, 1998