Evolution of Ethics

Ethics are often an oversight to novel development. However, they are an important part of any novel; a character will be guided by their morals, businesses and governments will generally reflect the holistic moral views of society, and the way large groups interact will reflect society’s norms. This post will analyse the history of ethics, and outline the different types of view points that can be taken (many of which will be analysed in more depth in later blog posts).

Ethics have been recorded for thousands of years: many ancient philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle and Confucius have shown the study of ethics within their writings.

What’s the difference between morals and ethics?

Recently, ethics has become more pronounced since the 1980’s, when the “greed is good” position taken by many large businesses started to result in scandalous corporation collapses.

Even more recently, the global financial crisis could be seen as a similar repeat of the “greed is good” position, where too many institutions sought to maximize their profits within a risky environment. Dr Rouhshi Low [Queensland University of Technology Lecturer] claims that ethics (or the lack thereof) had quite a significant impact upon the global financial crisis where the focus on short-term profits over long-term stability is ethically questionable.

Ethics Can Change

It is important to note that ethics can change over time (as ethics are dynamic and in constant state of change), for both individuals and the general society. For example, the “greed is good” stance was widely accepted by many people as the appropriate way to act (based on their moral and ethical justifications) until too many people (often the ones who suffered) started to protest against this stance (and thus sought ways to justify alternative views).

If your character, or society, are positioned to see a norm as a bad thing (such as being persecuted because of that norm) they will reject such a norm and ultimately justify a different ethical view-point. It is always the person that looses from a situational change that will reject that change.

Different Approaches To Ethics

There are three different approaches to the study of ethics: descriptive (scientific), conceptual and prescriptive (normative). [I will be focusing on the prescriptive/normative approach.]

descriptive approach focuses on the study of actual moral practices within society. This is the approach taken by anthropologists and sociologists.

Conceptual approach focuses on the study of key terms, such as right, obligation, justice, good, and more.

The prescriptive/normative approach focuses on what ought to be done, as opposed to what is actually done. This approach often focuses on what is best for society, rather than individuals.

The Normative Theories of Ethics

Further sub-classifying the study of ethics within the normative approach, there are three theories: (teleogical, deonotological and virtue-ethics).

Teleological is focused on the ultimate outcome or consequences of a decision. The ends can justify the means. Egoism and utilitarianism are the two most common viewpoints.

Deonotological is focused on the duty. This theory focuses on the process used, such as doing the social duty and following principles. Kantian ethics is the most common approach.

Virtue Ethics is focused on what a “good” person would do.

The board game, and the online game, of Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) has clearly and effectively utilised different approaches to ethics within their character classes. A rouge, or outlaw, is more likely to follow a teleological approach, where by their actions of stealing might be justifiable by what they achieve. For example, they might see stealing as appropriate in order to survive. On the other hand, a paladin would most likely follow a deonotological approach, trying to do what they think a “good” person would do (such as helping others). This class type is more likely to follow rigid rules in order to ensure that they do what is best for themselves and others. For example, by breaking the law, they would consider themselves as a “bad” person, because a “good” person would not do so.

Avoid or Confront

It is curious to note that many people would prefer to avoid a situation rather than confront and acknowledge an ethical dilemma. Such techniques include:

  • Calling it by a different name (eg copyright infringement termed ‘peer-to-peer file sharing’)
  • “Everybody else does it”
  • “If we don’t do it, someone else will”
  • “That’s the way it’s always been done”
  • “We wait until the lawyers tell us it’s wrong”
  • “It doesn’t really hurt anyone”
  • “The system is unfair”
  • “I was just following orders”

Ultimately a person’s ethical decision will depend on their moral development and which ethical theory they find more appropriate.

Basics of Egoism – The Motivations Self-Interest

Understanding people is a major step towards creating realistic characters in your novels, this includes how people think, talk, act and what they believe. This post considers the psychological principle of egoism, and how you can use this principle to create a believable character.

What is Egoism

Egoism looks at the outcome of a decision in terms of the effect it has on an individual.

Different Types of Egoism

There are two types of egoism commonly discussed:

  • Psychological egoism suggests that everyone is motivated by their own self-interest. They perform actions that ultimately gain them benefit (even if undergoing short-term discomfort).
  • Ethical egoism suggests that everyone ought to be motivated by their self-interest.

Although egoism focuses mostly on an individual’s self-interest, but it does not mean that they are selfish.

A person may aid another for a short-term to gain some benefit such as satisfaction, praise, or fame – or to avoid detriments such as criticism – over a longer period of time. This is easily seen with children helping others just to be praised, or immediately responding to an order to avoid being yelled at.

Some people will claim that even heroes and martyrs function in ethical egoism. Despite dedicating their lives for others (even if it means they live uncomfortably, dangerously or somewhat unhappily) they may be acting with subconscious self-interest (perhaps they do it for their own personal satisfaction).

Too Much of a Good Thing?

A purely egotistic society will cause anarchy and chaos.

If everyone was equally skilled and there were limited resources (such as food and shelter), everyone would act exclusively in their own interests. Beauchamp and Bowie (2004, pp14-15) stated in their book that

“such a world would be plagued with anxiety and danger… life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The computer game series Gothic features a world heavily based on an egotistic society. A hero  is placed into a society where a number of factions fight for supremacy. The hero must learn to fight and debate with others who are only self-motivated to survive. There are constant struggles for power with others, as whoever holds the power would ultimately be the person in control (they would be the top-dog).

Fight of Flight?

Most humans are rational enough to avoid conflict (often to the point of self-detriment) because of the risks of injury or of losing face (and thus losing precious power over others). It is then in their own self-interest to not fight. A much stronger person may still choose to fight if their opponent is (or they believe them to be) much weaker – the results will outweigh the risks.