David Blair: Ethics


This webpage on Ethics consists of an article, A Common Basis for Ethics, preceded by an Introduction to the article.  The placing of the article on the web has been prompted by recent events as follows.

The Kochhar Humanist Education Center, an activity of the American Humanist Association (AHA), has just recently set up the Humanist Teacher Corps.  The Corps is an “exciting new project” to which people can contribute “by either developing curricular resources which can be shared with other AHA chapters or by teaching courses in [their] local chapters.”  The Kochhar Center is interested in the article as a reference for people involved in the Teaching Corps.


Introduction to a Curriculum Aid for the Humanist Teaching Corps

Introduction by David Blair, 30 June 2009, revised March 2010

In brief: The aid is in the form of an article, which sets out a basis for ethics that is common to people having world-views covering a wide range.  The article is slanted so that it might be of use to people designing an ethics course for use in schools—say for ages 8 to 17.  While the proposed basis is secular, it is potentially acceptable to religious people (on the basis that, as Socrates said, the gods love what is good because it is good—not the other way around).

Reference for the article is:

David Blair, A Common Basis for EthicsAustralian Humanist, No. 84, Summer 2006, pp. 11–13.

David is a research physicist, a former lecturer, and a lifelong student of philosophy.

The Focus

The article does not put forward a general rule that attempts to prescribe what to do in each situation, such as utilitarianism in one of its forms.  Rather, the article attempts to describe the common basis for ethics at a more fundamental level, including the role of feelings and reasoning.  Such a basis is compatible with a person moving on to a view with stronger implications, such as utilitarianism or some alternative.

The basis required for ethics can be usefully contrasted with the philosophy of science, that is, the methods and logic being employed when science (good science) is being done.  The philosophy of science must spell out the role of observation and experiment, and also the role of theory-making and reasoning (including the “problem of inductive reasoning.”)  When one moves to formulating the basis of ethics (or the philosophy of ethics), a complication arises.  Scholars are placed in a quandary, as they are attracted to the view that ethical values are subjective but also to the view that they are objective.

In science, the world being studied is (or is usually taken to be) objective, that is, independent of the observer.  Experiment and reasoned argument usually lead to a consensus in the long run.  By contrast, ethical values are partly subjective (though some scholars dispute this)—the values can differ from one person to another.  Even when two people pursue reasoned argument indefinitely, such argument falls a long way short of guaranteeing agreement.  Two people can agree on the facts of the external world and still disagree on values.

Yet ethics is a long way from being entirely subjective.  Reasoned argument can, and frequently does, impel a person to “correct” his or her view.  And the change in view does tend to be in the direction of progress.  The article must therefore grapple with the fact that argument can rationally persuade, but only within certain limits that do not apply in science.

Target Audiences

Let us discuss the article in the context of teaching.  I believe the article to be of use to people designing an ethics course for use in schools—say for students aged 8 to 17 (a wide range, because the material is not used directly with the students—a curriculum is used).  Also, teachers of a course already designed by others could profitably read it for deep background and to help them decide in which directions it is appropriate to steer the class discussion and in which directions it is inappropriate.  The above remarks apply also to people designing or teaching “adult education” courses (as opposed to university courses).  Not all adult education courses, however, because a good many of these courses concentrate on the writings of specific philosophers.  As suggested above, religious schools that set their religion in a secular framework may also find value in the article.

Quite apart from teaching, the article is geared also to any adult interested in ethics.  (Whether the article is useful for university academics and university students I leave it for others to decide!)


Comments on the article are welcome:  send by email to .


Three notes about the article need to be made here.

  1. The “project” referred to in the first paragraph of the Preface was being set up in 2006 but has long ceased.  Consequently, much of what is said in the last two paragraphs of the Preface is no longer relevant (such as “develop a brief, crisp declaration” and “take part in the committee work”).
  2. Footnote 1 (explaining what the golden rule requires) ends with “the pronoun ‘I’ ”.  It is desirable to spell this out further.  In any purported ethical law, any occurrence of “I” or “me” needs first to be replaced by who it is that the “I” refers to: otherwise the “law” is not universal.  Then the requirement of universality is satisfied (in respect of this particular occurrence of “me”) if the replacement is a description that contains no proper noun.  To illustrate the point, “ … ought to salute me” might be replaced by “ … ought to salute the superior officer whom he has just encountered”; but it is not satisfactory to replace it with “ … ought to salute if the soldier encountered is John Smith.”  Interestingly, a universal law may refer to “the agent,” that is, the person whose possible action is being considered.  Thus there is nothing in the golden rule to say that, when the agent specifically gives preference to his own interests over the interests of others, he is automatically being unethical.  It can be that the person is acting ethically—as long as he seriously holds the view that every other person that acts in the same way in the same circumstances is also acting ethically.  Modern clinical psychology holds that is right to give some priority to one’s own interests over the interests of others—subject to some spelling out of the circumstances in which to apply this maxim and the extent of the priority.  (The psychologists point to the importance of avoiding getting highly stressed and the importance of relaxation and enjoyment.)  There are many unanswered questions in this area of ethics.  It seems that the only practical way to proceed is, not to try to somehow extend the golden rule, and thus ban many proposed ethical laws from even entering the ethical debate (by pointing to their alleged selfishness).  Any seemingly “selfish” laws can then be debated, or judged with the aid of feelings and empathy, just like any other proposed ethical laws.
  3. I add that many ethical laws are not of the form, “In situations of type X, one ought to do Y,” but are of similar forms.  Thus a law may begin with the same antecedent (“In situations of type X”), but be completed by any of the following:

 (i) one (or “the agent”) is permitted to do Y; (ii) one ought not to do Y; (iii) whether one ought to do Y depends on further details of the situation; or (iv) normally one ought to do Y.

End of Introduction



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