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  • Ethics is the branch of study dealing with what is the proper course of action for man. It answers the question, “What do I do?” It is the study of right and wrong in human endeavours.
  • At a more fundamental level, it is the method by which we categorize our values and pursue them. Do we pursue our own happiness, or do we sacrifice ourselves to a greater cause? Is that foundation of ethics based on the Bible / Bhagvad Geeta, or on the very nature of man himself, or neither?


  • A proper foundation of ethics requires a standard of value to which all goals and actions can be compared to. This standard is our own lives, and the happiness which makes them liveable. This is our ultimate standard of value, the goal in which an ethical man must always aim.
  • It is arrived at by an examination of man’s nature, and recognizing his peculiar needs. A system of ethics must further consist of not only emergency situations, but the day to day choices we make constantly.
  • It must include our relations to others, and recognize their importance not only to our physical survival, but to our well-being and happiness. It must recognize that our lives are an end in themselves, and that sacrifice is not only not necessary, but destructive.


  • Morality refers to the social norms and values that guide both individuals and their interaction with their fellow human beings and communities, and with their environment.
  • In all of these types of interaction there are important values at stake; rules and norms that are to protect these values; duties implied in social roles and positions that can foster these values and further these rules; and human virtues or capabilities that enable us to act accordingly. These moral factors are usually interwoven with religious practices and social power structures.
  • Ethics is a systematic and critical analysis of morality, of the moral factors that guide human conduct in a particular society or practice.
  • As fisheries represent an interaction between humans and the aquatic ecosystem, fisheries ethics deals with the values, rules, duties and virtues of relevance to both human and ecosystem well-being, providing a critical normative analysis of the moral issues at stake in that sector of human activities.
  • When actual moral values, rules and duties are subjected to ethical analysis, their relation to basic human interests shared by people, regardless of their cultural setting, is particularly important. Moral values may change, and moral reasoning asks whether the practices that are traditionally and factually legitimated by religion, law or politics are indeed worthy of recognition.
  • Indeed, the development of ethics in the past century has been characterized by a tendency to revalue and overthrow the moral conventions that have guided the interaction between the sexes, between human beings and animals and between human beings and their environment.
  • A more recent task of ethics is to resist those tendencies of globalization, marketization and technologization that erode both biodiversity and valuable aspects of cultural identity – and may even have effects that threaten human rights. Although these tendencies are often presented as value-neutral, they carry with them hidden assumptions that are potential sources of inequity and abuse.


  • Not so long ago, if you wanted to start a barroom brawl at a philosophy conference all you had to do was to make the claim that a defensible ethical or political theory is necessarily constrained by some theory of human nature or other.
  • Underlying the unease that some philosophers felt with any such claim was perhaps the belief that to allow such a claim would necessarily justify oppression or discrimination or deny human responsibility, meaning or purpose.
  • Making such a claim today about a connection between theories of human nature and ethics and politics might still start a fight but the claim-maker is likely to have more allies than would have been the case even, say, ten years ago.

Francis Fukuyama notes that “for much of this century, the social sciences have been dominated by the assumption that social norms are socially constructed, and that if one wants to explain some particular social fact one must refer…to ‘prior social facts’ rather than to biology or genetic inheritance.

Social scientists do not deny that human beings have physical bodies shaped by nature rather than nurture. But the so-called standard social science model asserts that biology governs only the body; the mind, which is the source of culture, values, and norms, is a completely different matter.”

  • On the other side of the argument are those who accept the necessity of a theory of human nature for an adequate grounding of ethics and politics though there may be deep divisions among supporters of this basic position as to what kind of theory best fulfils this grounding role.
  • Some accounts of human beings posit them as being through and through plastic. The post-1968 New Left in Britain and the US has shown a tendency to see human nature as almost infinitely plastic, to deny biology and acknowledge only social construction.” But could human beings really be ‘almost infinitely plastic? Such a position to be both implausible and untenable but perceived liberal necessity to hold such a position as a defence against discrimination and injustice is unnecessary.
  • The search for a single, simple characterization of human nature appears to be a mistake. Strict definition by genus and differentia would be wonderful if we could get it but it appears to beyond our grasp in regard to human beings. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • Even in the case of the material world surrounding us, seemingly uncontaminated by the processes of self-reference that bedevil human affairs, it appears that the search for a Theory of Everything is a search without end. Some eight hundred years ago, St Thomas Aquinas wrote in his little work de Ente et Essentia that even in the case of sensible things “the essential differences themselves are not known; whence they are signified through accidental differences, which rise out of the essential ones, as a cause is signified through its effect.” It is one thing to claim that man has an essence or nature; this is an ontological claim: it is quite another to claim that we can come to know exhaustively what that essence or nature is; this is a matter of epistemology.
  • Despite this difficulty, however, there is nothing obviously idiotic in assessing the qualities and properties of a given species as being more or less essential to that species.
  • We could consider those properties to be more essential that are, in some way, structurally or functionally effective throughout the whole of the animal’s activities or at least the greater part of them. In this way, man’s rationality is obviously more essential to him than his being two-footed or featherless.
  • If human nature is properly conceived of as a set of powers, tendencies, or capacities, then the notion of a limit necessarily comes into play for a capacity, if it is to be a capacity, must be a capacity for something relatively determinate. The notion of constraint or limit is an inescapable corollary to the notion of human nature.
  • Morality is tied to human interests and human properties and these constitute its limit. If we can agree that the concept of nature as such is at least intelligible and grant the existence of a human nature, then the next question to answer is: Is human nature relevant to ethics and politics and, if so, how?
  • There is a great deal of agreement that human nature is relevant to an adequate account of ethics & politics. One view is that moral and political arguments have, intrinsic to them, an account of human nature; while other believes that the ideas of philosophers concerned with human affairs depend upon on their conception of what man is and can be, and this central notion or image of the nature of man, which determines their picture of the world, is more important that the arguments used to defend their views; another individual claims that each form of social and moral practice has its own picture of human nature; while the other one claims that there is a single simple definition of human nature he is perfectly prepared to allow that ideas of human nature radically affect the kind of society we live in, believing further that without a conception of what it is to be human no one can say much about human societies or human practices—no human nature, no history, no politics, and no social anthropology; it is conceded, perhaps somewhat ruefully, that the appeal to human nature has been characteristic of all political philosophies, while it is hold that Aquinas and Aristotle held that ethical knowledge is based on a knowledge of nature, specifically a knowledge of human nature.
  • There appear to be as many definitions of man as there are men: We have been told that man is by his constitution a religious animal, a gaming animal that he must always be trying to get the better of something or other. The definition ‘man is a social animal’ has met with general approval’ while his being a tool-making animal, a tool-using animal, a being formed for society and born to believe are popular descriptions. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • The search for a single, simple, distinction, presumably embodied in a single, simple definition, is a mistake. But if these one-line accounts are unsatisfactory (at the very least because they can be at best partial even if true) how can we go about discovering a more adequate account of human nature? This raises the more general question of how we might come to know the nature of anything.
  • Unless one accepts the possibility of some sort of mystical intuition, then the only way to grasp the nature of an entity is by observing its characteristic activities and re-activities; in short, if you want to know what something is, see what it does. So we move, then, in the order of discovery, from an entity’s characteristic activities and re-activities to the range of capacities that it must have if it is to be able to act and react in its characteristic way. Furthermore, if necessary (as it will be necessary in the case of those entities whose basic capacities are susceptible of more or less permanent modification) we must move from these modified capacities, which are the proximate source of the entity’s activities, to the entity’s basic unmodified capacities.
  • We are here concerned only with human nature as an originative source of ethical and political activity and not with a disquisition on philosophical psychology as such, and so we should begin our inquiry by looking at man’s characteristic range of moral activities. Here, however, it seems that we run into immediate difficulties. Different people choose different things, and the same person chooses different things at different times.
  • Is the field of human action characterised by chaos, or is it possible to discern some principles of order? It is agreed that we know that there have to be some things that are naturally more important, more central to human life, than others, and [we know how to] compare them.
  • We are not really in the helplessly ignorant position philosophical discussions often suggest Ethical agnosticism is a delicate plant that, like scepticism in general, can survive only in the hothouse atmosphere of the academy; ethical agnostics can remain agnostic only so long as they are willing to deny the validity of their own experience. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • Is there anyone who, having worked for some time in the expectation of being materially rewarded, would not be justifiably aggrieved if his pay cheque failed to materialise.
  • And would this annoyance not turn to an angry claim of injustice if, upon inquiry, it transpired that the reason for the non-materialisation of the pay cheque was a playful whim on the part of his employer? Is there anyone who, seeing someone sticking pins into a baby just for the fun of it would not judge this to be reprehensible?
  • Still, even if we cannot hold that everything about human beings is in a state of constant flux, it is nonetheless true that human needs, desires, instincts, inclinations are very various and it seems unreasonable to hope that a satisfactory account of the good for man should arbitrarily select one of these co-ordinate goods as being the good above and independent of all the others: We want incompatible things, and want them badly.
  • We are fairly aggressive, yet we want company and depend on long-term enterprises. We love those around us and need their love, yet we want independence and need to wander. We are restlessly curious and meddling, yet long for permanence. Unlike many primates, we do have a tendency to pair-formation, but it is an incomplete dealing with such conflicts we have no option but to reason from the facts about our human wants and needs.”
  • The picture that emerges is one in which the objects of human action and the human actions directed towards them are at once manifold and varied, and yet ordered, or at least capable of being ordered. If the objects of human action are so orderable, so too should the human actions directed towards them be orderable.
  • There are many particular goods that can be chosen by us and yet it is important to us—that is, it is itself another good—that the selection of particular goods should be such that they do not clash with one another and cancel one another out. The good is sought in every limited and particular good and yet no particularised good can exhaustively express or contain it. There are always more and other goods necessarily excluded by our particular choices. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • A tension can arise between the egalitarian position that goods are more or less equal in attractive power and the aristocratic position that some goods are intrinsically better than others and that, perhaps, some one good is the best of all.
  • For Aristotle, in most of the Nicomachean Ethics, the life lived in accordance with virtue according to a rational principle appears to consists of the proper integration of a range of particular goods. Towards the end of the Nicomachean Ethics he seems to claim that reason has a specific object of its own apart from its role in ordering and integrating the choice of particular goods, this good being contemplation.
  • This is not an either/or situation—the positions are surely complementary. What is called the egalitarian position already recognises implicitly the existence of different orders of good, for the good of integration is not a good on the same level as any of the goods integrated.
  • The life of reason is, on the one hand, a life lived in such a way that the conflicting and quarrelling desires and needs are ordered in such a way as to maximise unity and integration and to minimise disunity and disintegration. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • And there is, obviously, not just one way of doing this, although it is clear that, in general, some ways of going about this are better than others, and that some ways of going about it are non-starters. But the integrationist or egalitarian approach to reason does not prevent it having its own special and unique excellence, which is its orientation towards truth for its own sake, what Aristotle calls contemplation.
  • Those ineluctably given aspects of our being that moderns call instincts or drives St Thomas calls ‘inclinations.’ He believes that there is an order of natural inclinations”’ which can be quite generally categorised and that these inclinations are indicative of the range of objects and activities which will present themselves to us as goods, for good has the nature of an end, and so, all things to which man has a natural inclination are naturally apprehended by reason as good, and so as worthy of pursuit. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • The first natural inclination to the good in based on that which is entirely common to all substances, and this is the inclination that each substance has to preserve itself in its own proper being according to its own nature. From the human perspective this inclination bears on all that has to do with the preservation of human life. The second natural inclination to the good is based on the nature that man shares with other animals. So, according to St Thomas, this inclination indicates a range of goods in regard to what nature has taught all animals, for example about the necessity for procreation and the nurturing of offspring. The third natural inclination to the good is based on man’s specific nature as that is peculiar to him alone.
  • The goods indicated by inclinations at this third level have to do with living in society and knowing truth about God, what we might term the practical and theoretical operations of reason. The goods corresponding to the three orders of inclination could be seen in terms of preservation; the preservation of all that is insofar as it is; the preservation of the species; the preservation of rational activity.
  • It should be obvious that the levels of inclination range from pre-biological, through the biological, to the specifically human. The three levels could be viewed as a set of three concentric circles, with the biological nestling within the pre-biological, and the human, in turn, nestling with the biological. Though each higher level, each inner circ! is dependent upon the lower (outer), it is not reducible to any of them.
  • To what extent are these natural inclinations and the good at which they aim fixed and unvarying? It might seem that what is natural is just so and cannot be otherwise but, surprisingly, Aquinas allows that man’s nature is, in a certain respect, changeable.
  • He says that what is natural is unchangeable but nevertheless man’s nature is changeable so that what is natural to man may sometimes fail. To illustrate this point he gives the following example: “the restitution of a deposit to the depositor is in accordance with natural equality, and if human nature were always right, this would always have to be observed; but since it happens sometimes that man’s will is unrighteous there are cases in which a deposit should not be restored, lest a man of unrighteous will make evil use of the thing deposited; as when a madman or an enemy of the common weal demands the return of his weapons.” ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • Now, although the third order of natural inclination to the good includes the goods of both theoretical and practical reason, there is nonetheless a very important difference between reason in each of its two aspects. The basic principles of theoretical reason and the basic principles of the practical reason are both the same for all and are known by all.
  • The proper conclusions of theoretical reason are the same for all though they are not necessarily known to all. By contrast, the proper conclusions of practical reason are not only not necessarily known by all, but they are not necessarily the same for all either. The example given to illustrate this point in the discussion of law in the Summa Theologiae is the same example about the maniacal or antisocial depositor which was given to illustrate the changeability of human nature. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • This appears to be a vitally important point, for it allows for objectivity at the level of principle while at the same time allowing for a certain measure of relativity in regard to particular choices and actions. Many of the fears of those who regard the notion of human nature as imposing a deadening uniformity on human action can be allayed if this distinction between moral principles and particular moral beliefs is clearly grasped. Those who conflate the level of moral principle with the level of moral belief more or less inevitably come to attach the relativity of moral beliefs to moral principles. But if principles and beliefs are not identical then the relativity of the one does not necessarily attach to the other.
  • Any given set of moral beliefs is, to some extent, an exemplification of moral principles and there can, of course, be more than one such set. Take, for example, the first principle of practical reason “good is to be done and sought after and evil is to be avoided.” This principle is exemplified or instantiated in all human actions, just as the corresponding first principle of theoretical reason is exemplified in all meaningful statements and beliefs. And just as particular truth claims are not deduced from the principle of non-contradiction but rather have, of necessity to exemplify it if they are to be meaningful, so too the first principle of practical reason necessarily informs all human action. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • How does a theory of human nature operate in ethics and politics? Can we set out a theory and deduce particular consequence from it as if it were a set of axioms and the consequences were its theorems?
  • The answer must be—assuredly not! To begin with, as already noted, prescinding from Revelation, natures of whatever kind can be discovered only by means of an analysis of the characteristic activities and reactivities of the entity whose nature we are attempting to elucidate. This is the order of discovery. So, for example, if you want to know what kind of thing, let us say, copper is, you hit it with a hammer, heat a length and measure it, stretch it and see what happens. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS
  • The piece of copper behaves in a quite definite way. And if the data we elicit is true not only of our favourite piece of copper but of any piece of copper selected at random then we have gained some insight—partial and limited but real— into its nature: “The modern must be content with the humble search for the uniformities of behaviour that betray the presence of stable ‘natures’. This is the basis of the predictability that characterizes scientific knowledge, whether it be that of bodies to obey gravitational pulls, of magnets to be pole-seeking, of chemicals to combine or react, of plants to grow or regenerate tissue, of animals to propagate their kind….But what of man and man’s nature? Is there something constant here too’?….the problem is whether observation of human nature, its structure and tendencies, will enable us to formulate a law of that nature.”
  • Once a nature has been more or less clearly delineated, once we have some reasonable grasp of the characteristic human needs, desires, and inclinations arranged more or less coherently in an account of human nature, then this knowledge can be used as an organising explanatory principle in relation to a range of data wider than that from which it was originally elicited.
  • If the concept of human nature is not to be sterile then it must be applicable in such a way. Of course a theory of human nature is always open to modification in the light of reflective experience, though not every part of the account will be equally revisable, and it may be difficult to imagine what could count as evidence against the central elements of the theory.
  • In practice, a theory of human nature functions in ethics and politics by articulating the limits within which questions may sensibly be asked and answered, and, in the case of particular naturalistic theories by attempting to pre-empt any possible rival non-naturalistic theories by interpreting their positions as being partial, inadequate, or limiting cases of itself. ETHICS IN HUMAN ACTIONS



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