Approaching ethical issues Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with principles of conduct which orient an individual towards what is right or wrong, good or bad. It is a normative matter and not merely a descriptive one.1 The words ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ are often used interchangeably and we will do the same. Following Hugh Mercer Curtler (2004) it is assumed that argument about alternative ethical propositions is possible – that is, it is possible to provide arguments based on reason in support of, or in counter to, ethical claims. The affirmation is made that it is possible to convince a rational person of the merits of an ethical claim, provided they have followed and understood the arguments. To this extent at least, ethical claims are objective claims and not merely subjective or at personal whim. It is understood also that ethical claims are ideally absolute claims – that is, universal and referent to all individuals – rather than culturally relative claims. Clearly cultural biases and personal prejudices can and do enter into judgements of value in ethics. However, we proceed in the belief that it possible to identify these subjective elements and reduce (if not eliminate) their influence. That is not to say that no cultural component remains, nor that ethical justification is simple. However, it is dispassionate argument that is the goal. Indeed, without a claim to objectivity the discussion of ethical standards becomes meaningless. We reject that view. It was Karl Popper’s view of scientific knowledge that knowledge itself is never static, but always tentative, conditional, and that increases in knowledge must be based on bold conjectures and searching attempts at refutation. Although Popper held that a sharp distinction existed between the ‘natural laws’ of science and the ‘normative laws’ of social convention, he advocated a similar, objective, approach to understanding in social sciences and in ethics, namely a reliance on openness, imaginative forays, and stringent criticism. This method of ‘critical rationalism’ involved as he saw it the Socratic process of proposition and argument, the recognition that everyone is liable to make mistakes, and that knowledge is always partial. As by this method no one is his own judge, it is a method which leads towards impartiality. It is a method founded, as Popper admits, on an irrational faith in reason as a means of moral decision making, and on the
belief that improvement in circumstance is possible (Popper 1966: 231). We share this perspective. One can propose a moral standpoint and defend it with reasoned argument. One can also oppose the moral standpoint of others with counter-arguments. Arguments may vary considerably in strength. Some may be fatal or near-fatal to a proposition, such as an argument that exposes a logical fallacy in deductive reasoning, or the inadequacy of core assumptions. In this case the original proposition is likely to be held at a considerable discount to its alternatives and may finally lack any support at all. More commonly, arguments will be less powerful but still may have merit; for example their merit may be limited by a lack of discrimination or unclarity in the original proposition, or on the differing interpretations of terms. In some such cases modifications to the original proposition may overcome the objection completely, or partially. In consequence judgements as to the relative merits of ethical propositions are rarely clear-cut; much more commonly they are a matter of judgement ‘on balance’.