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ETHICS: The Source of Ethics?


In the longstanding lecturers’ tradition of using imagined names that only the lecturer thinks are funny, I recently asked my students why it is wrong for Mr Tickenbash CA(SA) to provide assurance services to a company where he is a non-executive director. In the longstanding students’ tradition of giving an answer that only the student thinks is correct, several replied “because it is prohibited by the Code of Professional Conduct (CPC)”. These students had the direction of causality wrong: the CPC prohibition is the result, not the cause, of the fact that such behaviour is wrong.

So, if the CPC is not the source of ethics, what exactly makes unethical behaviour wrong? It’s a question worth asking, because answering it will bring us several steps closer to knowing right from wrong in the countless cases of ethical quandaries not covered by the CPC.

Apparently some people actually believe the cynic’s observation that “it’s only wrong if you get caught” (think of insider trading, for example). They make the same mistake of reversing causality by attributing the source of ethics to the law, instead of the other way around. In truth, law and ethics are like a married couple, who find out after several years that they don’t have much in common after all. Many laws have nothing to do with ethics: we can be relatively sure that the legislation introduced by Barack Obama to reform the US will not include a change requiring Americans to drive on the left hand side of the road.

Of course, many laws do enforce a moral standard, but we cannot be sure that the standard in each case is correct. The apartheid-era Immorality Act prohibiting sex between different races was a brutally absurd example of an immoral law, but sadly it is possible to find examples even today. Surely damning evidence of political corruption should be exposed, and the allegedly guilty party brought to justice, no matter whether there was political meddling in the decision to prosecute? And surely morality is not so arbitrary that a fraction of a percent in our recent elections decides whether it is right or wrong for a sitting president to be subject to the same rule of law as ordinary citizens? Clearly, if the law can be unethical, then a law against an act is not what makes the act wrong. A great excuse when my students catch me sliding through that pointless stop sign on campus.

People of faith might be tempted to suggest that, while the laws of men and women are not the source of ethics, the laws of God are. They are likely to reconsider in the light of Socrates’ perceptive question: “is certain conduct holy because it is loved by the Gods, or do the Gods love certain conduct because it is holy?” (the prevailing religion in Ancient Greece was polytheistic, but the question is just as effective for a single God). Surely, if the first option is true, if God’s preference for a certain kind of conduct is what makes that conduct ethical, then we have to accept that, if God’s preference were for the murder of innocents, then we should all go out and murder a small child. At this point, most people object that God would not have such a preference, but this is to endorse Socrates’ second option: that ethical principles have their source independently of God. Archbishop Emeritus Tutu did just this when he announced recently that he “would not worship an anti-gay God”. A good God, therefore, would direct us towards good moral principles, but would not in fact determine what such principles are (like the CPC and moral laws). Moreover, a good God is much more impressive on this view, since He is judged to be good by objective moral standards, rather than by His own self-imposed standards.
Finally, it is common to hear that the source of ethics is inside each of us, where we just know, deep down, the difference between right and wrong. This may simply mean that ethics has its source in feelings, a view known in philosophical circles as emotivism. It is also called the “boo-hurrah theory of ethics”, since it suggests that moral judgements amount to nothing more than statements like “murder – boo! kindness – hurrah!” But most people – philosophers included – cannot accept this view, because it makes ethics entirely subjective, and yet ethics are surely at least partly objective. We must agree that, say, genocide, is wrong, even though Hitler and not a few African leaders were (are) fond of it? Even though we cannot apprehend objective moral facts with any of the five senses, surely they do exist, just as objective facts about the mathematics of negative numbers exist?

The emotivists had one thing right – ethics does indeed come from inside – but the source is not our unexceptional capacity for feelings; rather, it is the unique characteristic that separates us moral animals from the rest of the herd, the same capacity that allows us to perceive those facts about negative numbers: rationality. Moral facts are facts of reason: they have their source in the hard, cold logic of “if P, then Q”.

Thus, when the available guidance is too vague or contradictory, or is plainly false, it is ultimately logic that will help us discern right from wrong. It is not always easy, but the best way to resolve your ethical dilemmas is to think hard about them, to talk them through with wise people that you trust, possibly even write them down, and to choose the course prescribed by objective, infallible reason. That is from where ethical principles come, after all.

Jimmy Winfield, B.Bus.SC, BCom (Hons), PGDA, is a lecturer in the Department of Accounting at the University of Cape Town, and also runs the Cape Business Seminars.