What are ethics?

A branch of moral philosophy: a codification of habits that are valued within the context of a culture: ergo, no right or wrong answers, just human custom. Normative ethics are those that define what we ought to do, without concerning themselves with what we actually do. Within that class of ethics are 3 persepctives on how we should act:

Deontological ethics (rules)
rules of duty and obligation – perhaps universally agreed upon, like not killing each other, or hurting animals. Some things are always right, others, always wrong, no matter the consequences.
Teleological ethics (consequences)
focus on the outcome of actions – actions for the greater good, perhaps, or the end justifying the means. Consequentialism is the view that the moral quality of a choice is decided solely by its outcome.
Virtue ethics
are about judgement of people’s character or moral fibre.

The obvious issue here is that life is complicated, isn’t it? We can’t make a simple set of rules because the complexity of life requires us to make choices sometimes that go against those simple rules for a better end. Is there any point, then, in having rules in the first place? Well, clearly, because we want everyone else to make choices that don’t harm or disadvantage us.

The trolley problem

Scenario 1
A runaway train is travelling on a railway track towards 5 people. You can’t warn them, but there is a lever that you can operate to switch the tracks. The problem is that there is a person on the other track. Do you pull the lever or not?
Scenario 2
As above, but now there are no points – instead, a large person standing a bridge over the tracks. Do you push Fatty into the path of the train to save the five?

I chose yes in both scenarios.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” – Spock

Interestingly, although I was with the majority in the first scenario, I was in the minority in the second. I don’t understand this difference, except for the difference between operating a control like the lever, and physically acting on another human being – the former seems less connected to the action, perhaps.

Other scenarios
How does the trolley problem change when the 5 are convicted rapists? Children? When Fatty is a scientist working on a cure for Leukemia? When the 5 are Mountain People (insert your own other-class of person)? Tories? Welsh? Rednecks?

Making moral decisions

So, are ethics about choices, or outcomes? Rules or consequences?

MIT are trying to build a picture of moral acceptability with their crowdsourcing moral machine project in which you are presented with multiple scenarios (like driverless car choices) in which you decide the path the vehicle should take, usually resulting in somebody or something dying. It is easy to become quickly abstracted from the awfulness of the choices you make in this game.

Guidelines in ethical frameworks for machine choices are broadly divided into four categories:

  • Do good
  • Minimise harm
  • Respect human autonomy
  • Be just or fair

Someone should tell Peugeot about the third one. My wife’s 2008 has a really irritating habit of grabbing the wheel if you change lanes without indicating, thinking that you’ve fallen asleep. I haven’t found a way of switching that off yet, but it is really disconcerting, especially on a long trip at night with no other vehicles around.

Transparency of the algorithm and accountability are increasingly being emphasised. These frameworks have become regarded as inadequate as they offer a way for corporations to hide behind them in what is called, “ethics washing”. This is a problem for all rules or specifications, or checklists.

Decision-making in Scottish Teacher Education

In my own application, teacher education1, the GTCS Professional Standards are meant to provide an objective benchmark that describes the competencies and skills of all teachers in Scotland. We know that the application of these standards is in the hands of the profession itself and therefore wildly variable in their interpretation. The standards themselves are written in ambiguous and wishy-washy language, like most things in state-provisioned education, and so are highly subjective and open to – interpretation or abuse, depending on your view of an individual situation.

Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for kings.” –Lorca (Goldsman, 2019)

Moral decision-making applied to data ethics

A couple of questions are asked in a section making the links between moral decision making and data ethics. The first, “Should we require people to give their DNA to a gene bank?”, screams at me, perhaps because of my age and the closeness people of my age have, although not by first-hand experience, of the horrors of the Second World War. Everything about centralised reporting of ethnicity makes me recoil: I never provide information about my ethnicity, and I would need a very good reason before I ever did. We are forgetting: something that gets me in trouble almost every year, with very real regret and a deepening sense of injustice2.

The second question relates to social media and their handling of “hate speech”. This is topical: I have just deleted my personal Facebook account3 after they, once again, dismissed my objections to posts intended to whip up hatred of muslims, or other racial or ethnic groupings. In every case I have raised, the posts have not been found to breach codes of conduct, illustrating what is described as ethical washing (see above). To my cost – I have cut off friends and family with whom I am only connected this way – I have deleted my account.

A thought experiment

We are tasked with making our own thought experiment to allow us to examine our beliefs and “surface” factors that influence our judgement. This is mine.

The question
Is it OK to kill to save lives in a war when you are not a combatant?
In the context of war, it is given that the combatants of one side are allowed to kill the combatants of the other. What constitutes “combatant”, however? Is it anyone who wears the uniform, or stands behind the barricades? What about observers?
The story
During an African war, a soldier of an impartial peacekeeping force (soldier A) is invited to take a ride in a helicopter on a routine supply drop to a station in the bush. Soldier A has not been explicitly told that he is not allowed to ride in the vehicles of either side. The route is a well-known safe corridor, well policed by peacekeepers and respected by both sides in the war. Soldier A takes the ride, seated in the open side door of the helicopter next to a mounted cannon. En route, the helicopter comes under fire unexpectedly. The pilot takes evasive action by banking sharply to right. Soldier A can see smoke coming from a group of boulders on the ground directly below him. He realises that his life, and the lives of the others in the helicopter are in danger. He hears the pilot on the intercom shouting, “Shoot them! Shoot them!”

You are soldier A. Do you use the cannon and try to save yourself and the crew?


Goldsman, A. (2019). "Star Trek: Discovery" Context Is for Kings (TV Episode 2017). CBS Television Studios. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5835714/?ref_=ttep_ep3

  1. We don’t like “teacher training” because we like to think that teaching is a profession, like the law, or the military. It isn’t, of course, but we sustain the pretence for ourselves, even if nobody else in society believes it.↩︎

  2. When I call people out for their disrepect of the remembrance observation, it is always me that is critiqued for not being kind, or collegiate. People can be so ungrateful and selfish. The injustice of such treatment makes me wonder.↩︎

  3. I am keeping, uncomfortably, a couple of social media accounts going that are related to my media and technical interests. Incidentally, I also deleted my personal Twitter account, but not for this reason. I’m generally a bit fed up with the whole Internet at the moment.↩︎