Precepts to use in everyday life

1. Think for yourself, 2. Be yourself, 3. Speak up, 4. Feel free to agree and disagree, 5. Be honest with yourself and others, 6. Be open-minded, 7. Avoid being judgmental and 8. Question everything - even your own thinking.

TOK Essay Titles May 2019

Monday, June 15, 2009


Ethics - The right to free speech #3

So why did we defend the BNP's right to be heard? Consider the difference between morals and ethics.


Morals are the ideas that you value in life like 'honesty', 'truth' and 'freedom'. Your moral sense is something rooted in your emotional life: the way in which you are brought up, the cultural and religious influences throughout your life which shape how you think and feel about things. Your moral sensitivity depends on the richness of your emotional lives, not only your capacity to acknowledge and express your feelings, but also to understand the feelings of others; in short, your capacity for sympathy and empathy.

Your morals are deeply affected by proximity - the distance and nearness of your relationships - and this defines your sense of moral limits: you're more likely to involve yourselves in someone's problems if you're close to them, whereas you may step back when confronted by a stranger's problems. The classic moral dilemma is: what would you do if you saw person X being attacked in the street? Consider the similarities and differences of your answer when you replace 'person X' by a) your best friend and b) Anonymous Stranger.

With all this in mind, your morals drive you to an emotive response to moral problems. You express your personal, subjective, often biased, opinions which are usually shaped by your parents' views and those emerging from your particular cultural background. So when I said the words 'asylum seekers' in a class today, there were howls from students and someone cried out: 'My mum said that they take all the good jobs so there's nothing left for us - I think they should all be made to give them up...' Much too often, your moral sense reflects passively received beliefs; ideas that you have not thought through and regurgitate with a good layer of emotion but without much effort.

Having said this, the emotions attached to your moral sense have an important role to play - another TOK Team teacher has called it 'the residual survival value' of emotion - remember? Emotion allows us to by-pass the reasoning stage in the decision-making process in critical moments. When a hungry lion appears in front of you, you don't have time to stop and think and reason: should I really climb up the tree or should I wait to see if I look tasty? We just scarper up that trunk and get safe. Emotion often involves the element of self-preservation and this also shapes our moral limits, so in a moral situation, like what to do about asylum seekers, our need to protect ourselves (our livelihoods) takes over and drives us to push asylum seekers out. Compare: when the referee makes an offside decision against your team, you scream a number of choice expletives at him in anger, because the decision could cost your team a win and losing is as bad as dying a death: this emotive barracking of the ref represents your way both of defending your team's very existence and of delivering your moral judgment.

So - morals = personal = emotive = subjective opinion.


Ethics are a code of principles created to guide us how to behave in the right way, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Olympic Code of Ethics and the World Anti-Doping Code. These days, it seems that every field of work has its own related ethical code of practice. These codes are usually embodied in a framework agreed upon by human beings in a moment of - it is hoped - lucid, rational detachment. There is no emotion involved, but emotion might have driven these people to the discussion table so as to work out what really matters when it comes to social behaviour. The question that is at the heart of this process of debate and discussion is: can we all agree what counts as an ethical principle that everyone could refer to in situations of moral crisis? Of course, the criteria required to decide what makes a good ethical principle is fraught with difficulty in itself and many great minds have faltered over the problem.

We may end up disagreeing frantically about the nature of Human Rights, for example, and whether those who abuse human rights should have access to them in the first place. Here's a classic argument:

P1: The BNP do not allow ethnic minorities to join their party.

P2: (Usually the hidden premise) Democracy entails that all people of eligible age and status can belong to a political party of their own choice.

Conclusion 1: Therefore, the BNP are not truly democratic.

Conclusion 2: Therefore, the BNP have no right to be heard.

We can change P1 with various other propositions and reach the same two conclusions - some might argue, however, that we need to look more closely at P2 and perhaps re-define our definition and vision of democracy.

But who decides which people are to have rights and which are to be denied them? Surely there are certain inalienable rights to which we all have access irrespective of what we think, believe and do or do we need to earn the right to human rights? Lots of unanswered questions (like many of your TOK essays!)

The point is this: ethics are objective, the result of intense rational thought and discussion. They are an external reference point for us to turn to when we find ourselves in moral difficulties. This doesn't mean that any code of ethics is fixed and absolute. NO - we can be wrong and may need to re-discuss and re-think our ethical principles and make future amendments. Our ethics evolve as our minds and experiences develop.

A code of ethics may not always help, but it may reassure us, give us a direction, guide us to make an informed decision without being sheep-like and repeating the beliefs of others. Ethical integrity is your capacity to speak for yourself and to voice your beliefs, however awkward and controversial they may be, even if you are the only person in the world proclaiming those beliefs. Remember: ethical integrity is also based on your ability to inform your moral sense with rational thought and discussion and to put those beliefs up to be challenged and tested.

Ethical risk works both ways: you take the risk to voice your beliefs and others take the risk to hear you, but you both work with the mutual goal of subjecting those beliefs to rational scrutiny.

You might argue, however, historically speaking, too many people took the risk to hear Mussolini and look what happened. One counter to this is: many more people stood by and watched without speaking up against him...

So: ethics = impersonal = rational = objective.

Moral and ethical perspectives

Now it's the easiest thing in the world to take the moral high ground on an issue: we are quick to judge and often pre-judge situations and people without really looking more closely at them. Why? Perhaps because we get a real sense of superiority and power. We feel like we are in control of our lives and thoughts and feelings and can extend this control over others (usually more vulnerable people). However, emotion works like that; it's very capricious, but then that's what makes us human.

In order for them to work, ethical dicsussions must take place on a level ground: no-one is trying to be better than someone else or to assert his beliefs and claims as being superior. Each party brings his views equally to be subject to rigorous rational scrutiny. Knowledge claims, however absurd or reprehensible, are tested against rationally determined principles and then accepted or rejected accordingly. This process can be intensely serious and frightening; it can be playful and light-hearted or even ironic; it can make for great entertainment. The process involves, ultimately, a common need for decent discussion and a will to resolve moral dilemmas.

Let's ask the question again: why did we defend the BNP's right to be heard.

Answer: there is no contradiction in feeling morally outraged at the BNP's politics and wanting them removed from the face of this earth and at the same time in knowing that they have as true a claim to free speech as anyone else living on this planet.

We are, perhaps, expressing the paradox of democracy without giving in completely to moral relativism.

You can work out yourselves the costs and benefits of our perspective as well as other perspectives, but remember, democracy is frail and vulnerable and not without fundamental flaws...

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