Issue 42

August 2012






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The Evolution of Ethics

Ethics is the Greek word for the values needed to lead a good life. ‘Morals’ is the Latin equivalent.

At a recent meeting of the Philosophy group, for an ethical discussion, the question was raised; “Do we need a new set of ethics to cope with the current state of our Western society”? To answer that we should first consider what we have now, then try and find if and what is failing us.

There is not, never has been and never can be an absolute standard of moral or ethical values. If a man lives totally on his own then his behaviour only affects himself, but Homo sapiens i.e., us, is a social animal. All social animals, in particular us and our distant cousins the primates have standards of group behaviour. These are essential for communal living and safety. Any group of people or other animals that cannot live peacefully together cannot survive. These standards will have evolved as the animals, including humans, evolved so that the earliest standards of ethical behaviour will never have been thought out or discussed, agreed and written down. It is almost certain that the main basic standards of group behaviour, such as approbation of murder, stealing or ill treatment of the young, the communal protection from other groups or predators and the collection of food would have evolved long before the conscious awareness of such concepts. As man became more sophisticated then the standards of expected behaviour would have become more sophisticated.

The first person that we know of, who seriously considered the question of ethics was the Athenian philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC.) who spent a lot of his life seeking knowledge, which would then lead to wisdom. Socrates maintained that having wisdom would enable a man to know how to make the right decisions to lead a good life and thereby become a good man, which would in turn protect his soul; therefore no wise man would knowingly make a wrong decision. The main elements of the Athenian ethics were to do your duty to the state, have courage, fight in the wars, pay your respects to the gods, to be honest and just to your fellow citizens and before you die pay your debts to your friends. One major element of that philosophy was that the responsibility for leading a good life was that of each man.

Different societies and different religions are likely to have different ideas of morality, but they will almost certainly contain the original evolved group standards of not transgressing against other members of the group and standing together for mutual protection.

When in early 4th century A.D. the Roman Emperor Aurelius Constantine declared himself to be a Christian, the standard of Western ethics gradually became as dictated and controlled by the Christian church. People no longer needed to decide or take responsibility themselves, so long as they did as the church instructed, everything would be all right and death would be followed by rebirth and heaven. That condition continued until the period of the enlightenment, when the authority of the church became weakened and various thinkers propounded newer ideas and ethical values.

Western society is now probably in a position where the Christian church has less effect and authority on ethical behaviour than at any time since before Emperor Constantine’s rule.

When there is not an over-arching authority such as a religious establishment, ethical values will normally change to represent the view of the society, but lag behind it in practice, especially without the pressure of an authority to change the cultural outlook, or that of “peer group pressure”, i.e., ‘keeping the honour of the family name’, or ‘what will the neighbours think.

The relatively modern philosophy of Existentialism, particularly associated with Jean-Paul Sartre [1905 – 80] emphasised the freedom of the individual to make their own decisions, but equally the responsibility for them. Whilst immediately post WW2 that seemed to be a popular theme, recently the culture of the West has seemed to more readily accept the bureaucratic central control of socialism, than the individual maintenance of ethical values.

To sum up, ethical values will change to reflect social conditions, but a large proportion of the population will probably need some pressure to attempt to live by them. So the question remains: Are our current ethical values lacking, if so in what respect, or is it because the cultural standards or peer group pressures are lacking?

David Broadley