A man pounds the keys of a typewriter in a frenzy, clearly in a state of heightened anguish. The words he types repeatedly, “What then must we do?” come from the Gospel of Luke (3.10 – 14), words which also inspired the title of a book by Leo Tolstoy on the causes of and possible solutions to extreme poverty. The man is a reporter in 1960s Indonesia where the government of President Sukarno seems oblivious to the fate of millions of its poor. The scene comes from the 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously (Dir. Peter Weir). The reporter, Billy Kwan, gives voice to one of the most important and agonizing challenges human beings face. In the presence of evil or manifest wrongs, what should be the most appropriate moral response? What then must we do? Ethics covers issues and questions pertinent to all other Areas of Knowledge in TOK. Its central question is: How can we know for certain what the right thing to do is?

The different methods for determining the answer to that question have emerged from different historical periods and from some of the greatest thinkers the world has known. These ideas have given birth to the standard ethical theories usually studied in any course on ethics. Before we look at some of them let us step back and try to identify the ways in which any moral situation may be assessed.

  1. One could look at the action itself, its essence and very nature. Is it intrinsically moral (good) or immoral (bad).
  2. One could simply look at whether the action is consistent with accepted sets of rules, norms, laws etc… If it isn’t the action is clearly wrong.
  3. One could look at the motivation of the agent. Why did the person choose to act in the way they did? What were their reasons, their goal or their purpose?
  4. One could look at the consequences, actual and potential, of the act. What has the outcome been, to what degree have people benefited from what has been done?
  5. One could pay special attention to the entire context (who, what, where, when, why…) in order to achieve a more holistic comprehension of the situation. A little bit like combining all the approaches above.

Whichever method or methods one chooses, it/they will have formed the basis of most of the standard ethical theories one should be aware of. In rough historical order here are some of them:

  1. Virtue Theory: Become the best person you can be and then act naturally. Interestingly, this theory does not focus on rules or actions but on personal character, practice moderation in all things and you will naturally become morally mature (Aristotle).
  2. Situation Ethics: Based on a single command by Jesus Christ, “love your neighbour as yourself” the idea is to express unconditional love in every situation (Joseph Fletcher).
  3. Natural Law: Human nature when properly observed yields five primary duties. Namely, personal survival and protection of the innocent, reproduction, the search for knowledge, conformity to social values and spiritual fulfillment. From these, specific rules are derived to fit the relevant situation (Thomas Aquinas).
  4. Kantianism: Always act in the way you would want everyone else to act in similar circumstances, apply this rule to every situation without exception. (Immanuel Kant).
  5. Utilitarianism: Maximize the amount of pleasure or minimize the amount of pain in every situation. There are different versions where what you attempt to maximize will vary (Bentham/Mill).
  6. Rights Theory: Identify the rights everyone is entitled to and make sure that in every situation those are respected or not infringed (W.D. Ross).

Of course, every ethical theory has its strengths and weaknesses as well as a tendency to favour one/two of the methods listed above. No-one has yet been able to produce a single, universal, eternal, comprehensive and infallible ethical theory, and of course virtually no-one ever lives their entire life on the basis of a single set of ethical principles or values. All this however, will not and should not ever stop us from echoing Billy Kwan: What then must we do?