Ethics 101 – Discussion


Peter: I think we all have a fairly hazy idea about what ethics is. We believe intrinsically that ethics is a good thing. My knowledge of the topic is incredibly limited, so I'd like to introduce my colleague professor Doug Baker, who knows way more about ethics than I do. Welcome Doug!

Doug: Thank you, Peter. A pleasure to be here.

Peter: So Doug, I don't have a crisp sense of what ethics is. When I hear the word ethics, I think of all kinds of things; right and wrong, good and evil, morals, values, behaviors. Can you untangle some of these things for me?

Doug: Yes. I think Peter, when I teach ethics, I like to first start off with teaching what ethics is not.

Peter: Okay.

Doug: To start off on the negative, usually that's not a good thing, but I start off on the negative. What it is not; is that it's not values. It is not religion. It is something fundamentally, that underlies all of society, it underlies all of religion and it transcends culture.

Peter: So all societies, all religions, all cultures? It's a global thing?

Doug: Its global. It is actually the philosophy of morality and it offers us a guide. Ethics offers us a guide as to the right thing to do. 

Peter: Okay.

Doug: And so, values are a constellation of beliefs, an amalgam of who we are, and it's culturally specific values and it's contextually specific. In other words, the values within Australian culture in say 1800 are quite different than the values in Australian culture now.

Peter: But have ethics changed over the time?

Doug: No, but values change.

Peter: So it's an interpretation?

Doug: Values set the norms of the culture, and they are a way of enforcing ethics. But ethics transcends them, to all cultures as I said. So, values again are continuous to time, but that doesn't change in terms of ethics. What ought to be the right thing to do, what is the right thing to do is determined by moral reasoning.

Peter: So people have been thinking about ethics for a long, long time, maybe the longest activity or topic that people have thought about. Do they all agree?

Doug: No. But, listen, there are degrees in ethical theory. It is a huge area and in terms of how we proceed ethically, there's generally two different schools of thought. There's teleology and there's deontology, and if we look at those two different schools of thought in terms of moral reasoning, they'd come to how we should proceed and how we ought to act differently.

Peter: Okay so run me through these two.

Doug: Okay. So first teleology looks at the good thing, the right thing to do; what's good in the end, and it looks at the process of getting what's good, and the argument with teleology is, we proceed into the future by doing the right thing and producing the greatest good. And so, the argument in it is, it's not the process but the product, and it's also called consequentialism. And in terms of the utilitarians Bentham and Mill in the 1840's, 1850's and 1860's, utilitarianism is brought in this branch of ethics by looking at the greatest good for the greatest number. So, whatever you do should build the largest degree of happiness, so the end result is what comes.

Peter: So it's not about the individual, it's about the greater good?

Doug: Correct.

Peter: Okay.

Doug: Yeah, exactly right. So, if we build a dam for power, the objective is to build an industrial reservoir for power for the industrialisation of a nation, and the fact that we have to move out two hundred farmers or a couple of villagers doesn't matter.

Peter: Because of the greater good?

Doug: It's what counts.

Peter: Okay. So, in an engineering term then, you'd say that would depend on your cost function. It would depend on the weights that you applied to electricity and to the happiness of the village.

Doug: Absolutely. And so, it becomes a case of measuring market and non market variables. But the greatest good for the greatest number is often the argument you see in a lot of mega projects. That, yeah we know, we know we have to affect you here and we know this community's getting impacted but, for the greater number, it's important.

Peter: Tell me about the other branch.

Doug: The other branch really looks at the process. Deontology is a whole area of thought, starting with can't and moving forward right through the rolls, that looks at the process, and the argument is that the process and the good are separated. So what is good is separate from the correctness of the process.

Peter: It's how you get there?

Doug: Correct.

Peter: Okay

Doug: So the argument is in fact how we do it, it's critical, and that moral guidance as to how we do it makes the difference.

Peter: Can you give me an example.

Doug: So in terms of public participation, the argument is, for example, any government would actually, when they have a large project in their mind go ahead and do it in the past. But now we have a process by which to inform the public, to integrate the public, to make the decisions as to whether this is the best path to go, and more people are involved in the decision making process, and as a result public participation and stakeholder participation is bloomed as a result of this. But the key with this branch - deontology; John Rawls is probably the most well known philosopher of the 20th Century, really looked at a theory of justice, and the argument was, what counts here is justice for the individual, and we base our decisions on what's right for the individual and not to harm the individual.

Peter: Okay so one branch then is the greater good of however we might define that, other branch is what's best for the individual. 

Doug: Absolutely.

Peter: So I can pick and choose? No one of both ethics is better than the other?

Doug: Correct. And you can justify it accordingly. For example, in consequentialism when you look at positive discrimination, in other words a preferential hiring of say, first nations or aboriginal people over top of other applicants, or the hiring of women over the top of men, in preference to men. Now the argument is that positive discrimination is justified in a consequentialist argument, in that there has been problems in the past with respect to how we treated women and how we fired. We can rectify that in the present by specifically focusing on hiring them and violating the principle of justice, but the end result is that we'll have 50% women in the work place.

Peter: Yeah.

Doug: You're with me? So that's a consequentialist argument. Now a deontologist would take offence to that, because you're violating fairness. And so, a consequentialist's perspective then has the end result in mind, and again the greater good in mind. So you can argue from both sides.

Peter: So Doug, given all of that, how do I put ethical thinking into practice? 

Doug: There's no formula but there's a fundamental kind of basis for all moral codes.

Peter: Okay.

Doug: It hinges around again, the individual and the rights of the individual. First there's the construct of autonomy - the right of the individual to make their own choice and not to violate that. Secondly, there's a construct of maleficence - to do no harm.

Peter: Okay.

Doug: And it's the ethical code that surrounds doctors. It's formed around non-maleficence. Then there's beneficence, which is to help, to aid. Secondly, or lastly, there's this notion of justice and that's Rawls approach. You must have fairness. The fairness principle is critical. 

Peter: Is fairness an absolute concept?

Doug: Yes, it is. And it can be weighed if you look at the utilitarian theory and Pareto economics - they lay fairness in that construct, in terms of what is fair and what isn't and how do we determine fairness. So, it translates, much of this ethical theory translates directly into economic theory and utilitarian theory. So it's fascinating how it's all brought in and through it into the how we see the world and how we evaluate the world.

Peter: So it's not just some abstract notion, it can be put into practice and it underpins really important things in our society.

Doug: Absolutely! There's nothing more applied than a good ethical theory.


There is no code in this lesson.

Ethics is a global guide as to the right thing to do. Listen as Doug Baker explains this for us in terms of teleology and deontology with examples to help us understand.

Professor Peter Corke

Professor of Robotic Vision at QUT and Director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision (ACRV). Peter is also a Fellow of the IEEE, a senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and on the editorial board of several robotics research journals.

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