I shall argue that ethical questions are vital but fundamentally irresolvable and so the questions become:

  • How do people build and reinforce an ethical system?
  • How does, or to what extent does, that system affect human life?
  • How can we change social ethics?

Social importance of ethics

Let me posit that humans like to be regarded by themselves and others, if possible, as ‘good people’ no matter how ‘good’ is socially defined. A Viking’s idea of what makes a good person, might be radically different to that of Mother Teresa’s, and ideas of goodness might differ in a society with a person’s gender, social role, age and so on. There may be no coherent set of ethical positions across different groups in a society. However, being recognised as socially ‘good’ by some others, often builds status, privilege, trust, influence and sometimes power. Being recognised as ‘not-good’ may increase distrust, fear, the threat of exile and so on.

Sometimes what is socially good, is built up in opposition to a supposed mainstream – thus a ‘good’ criminal (as defined by others), might see themselves as tough, competent and clever, despite the mainstream seeing them as bad. Perhaps they claim to see the reality of human life, while other people are hypocrites.

Arguments about politics, decisions about courses to choose in life, seem frequently underlined by claims that the decisions and positions involve ethics. Even if people can be accused of hypocrisy, they are still making some kind of ethical decision, deciding that the decision they make is the best one, that it is a decision they should be able to live with. So we can still suggest they are being ethical, simply that they perhaps do not expect others to approve.

Ethics is complicated, and hard to demarcate, and understanding ethics seems complexified by several factors such as its lack of a non ethical basis, its connections to cosmology, its connections to group identity and politics, its connection to custom and habit, and finally (but permeating everything) its connection to context.

Lack of basis for ethics

Firstly, it seems there is no basis for ethics which is not an ethical statement which foreshadows the ethical argument that will proceed from it. In general ethical arguments do not have appeal across different forms of ethical arguments, and there seems no way to avoid this problem, despite the apparent importance of ethics for human identity.

For example, if we say it is good to behave in the same way in all situations (the so called “categorical imperative”), that itself is an ethical statement, which can be denied by other ethical arguments such as the assertion that it is our duty to behave with respect to the situation in its particulars, and not suppress those particulars in the general (what is sometimes called “situational ethics”). I would suggest we almost always categorise human events as situations similar to others, because of our intentions. We may want to classify an event as ‘bad’ or ‘excusable’ because of circumstances and context for example – is a killing murder, self defense, occurring in war, ‘crime of passion’, provoked, accidental etc…

Even something as apparently straightforward as acting to preserve the survival of as many people as possible, is already an ethical decision. Other ethical systems could suggest that humans do not necessarily deserve to survive, or that the population (usually of other people) should be culled, or that only elites, or true believers, like us (whoever we are) deserve to survive, that survival should be determined by contest, or that or that material survival (as opposed to gaining spiritual wisdom) is unimportant, and so on.

There is no necessary agreed on basis from which to argue ethics, so ethical questions are always irresolvable, although groups who share similar ethical orientations may agree on the general principles.

If groups do not share some symbolic ethical orientation, then there appears no obvious basis on which different ethical positions can be resolved, other than by different groups resolving to live together irrespective of this difference, different groups splitting or hiding, or uniformity being imposed perhaps by total control of information or through violence. And these resolution positions may also be said to be ethical positions.

Ethics and cosmology

Ethics always states something about a person’s cosmology. By ‘cosmology’, I refer to the ways that a person or group, thinks (theorises) that people and the world or cosmos actually work. Good behaviour should generate ‘good’ results (however they are defined), because that is how things are – even if the good results may manifest after we die. Thus if you think that obeying the written instructions of a God is the basis of ethics, that says something about your cosmology and the way you expect behaviours to be rewarded. If you think that behaving ethically will bring happiness, you may aim to increase happiness. If you think the world is a place of endless struggle, then you will probably participate in, and train for, that struggle.

There is, for example, some evidence that believing in neoclassical capitalist economics is correlated with more selfish behaviour. Which way the causality flows is uncertain (believing in classical economics generates selfish behaviour, and selfish behaviour reinforces a belief in those forms of economic theory), but it may form a positive feedback loop. The behaviour and cosmology reinforce each other.

Sometimes behaviour and cosmology may not appear to reinforce each other, but they still set off a particular ethical dynamic. For example may believe that God is both love and an eternal torturer, this may set off a dynamic of using torture and violence to express your love and concern – which may drive guilt which drives more torture and less love, and so on. Perhaps people eventually came to think that this message was inconsistent and this helped drive the decline in Christian dominance?

Ethics politics and difference

Ethics is always political and revealed in conflict, disagreement and argument. Politics usually involves some kind of ethical appeal, even if the appeal appears pragmatic, because in some views ethics is primarily pragmatic, but what is pragmatic is also an ethical decision. Whether it is ethical to run a country either by increasing corporate profit, benefitting the people materially, or keep the ecology functional, is a matter of ethics.

As political, ethics can be perceived to be part of the social relations of differences between groups and their identities. This is a context in which ethics works.

People’s ethical judgment of the behaviour of people on ‘their side’ is often more lenient, and trustful, than it is towards people on a socially defined other side. A person who seems to be a good exemplar of the groups you identify with, will probably seem to be virtuous. A person who seems to exemplify, to you, the groups you oppose, will probably seem non-virtuous, or more prone to corruption and evil. Likewise, people can justify their group’s narrow political interests while claiming it is for the greater good, or the good of all. People seem to more easily see the bad in another group than in their own, or even invent that bad in the others through some kind of shadow projection.

The way the boundaries between groups is constructed is also important, because empathy and concern is also strong between people who are defined as similar, who can be put into a wider category. This is similar to the ways that Benedict Anderson suggested that Nations where constructed out of popular media; the media grouped people together as worthy of concern, as sharing the same stories and the same identity, so that distance was relatively unimportant. In this case, different people were constructed as different, but still belonging to the wider notion of the nature, and for some people of humanity. However, categories can be constructed as opposed, in which case the connecting empathy may be significantly weakened, or even broken all together. We can see something like this happening in the US. Once not that long ago, people who identified as Republican or Democrat could see each other as different, but also as fellow Americans who worked together for their country, who could co-operate for the greater good. That stage now seems over. Republicans see Democrats as evil hypocrites, and Democrats see Republicans as conniving and stupid people who deny reality. There has been almost no co-operation between the parties, except for a co-operation in name calling and hostility for the last 12 or so years.

As a result, the US is probably in danger of falling apart, or falling into decay. There is no common story, cosmologies are growing apart. The split is driven by ethics, ethical identity and group relations.

Custom and habit

Anthropologists who studied traditional people often expressed surprise, when they asked the people “why do you do this?” and received the answer “because we have always done it,” or “our ancestors did this.”

The point is that if something is familiar it can seem that that is the way of the universe, or the way things work, or are. You may not like it (individually), but most people will go along with it, because that is how the world is. Custom and habit suggest ethical acceptance, or else they might change. If it is the custom to sacrifice your first born to the gods, then while you might have personal doubts, most other people in your group will support the action, and will probably try to make you perform it – perhaps to avoid the anger of the god. If it is necessary to find a job to survive, then getting a job will seem moral. If it is customary for the Aristocracy, or the wealthy, to rule, and they seem relatively good at ruling, then it will seem good that they rule. Perhaps if a society had depended on fossil fuels for a long while, it could seem immoral to try and change, and to risk the habits that have grown up around that technology – new habits might seem impractical, unpragmatic or just wrong.

Context and Framings

We can define ‘context’ as the events around (or ‘framing’) a specific event. Changes in context changes the meaning of an event, just as a different context can change the meaning of a text, or anything else. Framings can be conscious or unconscious. Using the term ‘framing’ is meant to suggest that the context of an event, does not have to be ‘real’ – people can bring their own framings to an event, and different groups may have different framings, so they perceive and interpret what is happening quite differently.

If the context involves charged relationships between particular groups such as a challenge to authority, then the condemnation of a person in the opposed group might intensify and the defense of a person in a supported group might also intensify. In a war, the side committing war crimes will probably ignore them, or defend them as honorable. If a custom is breaking down, then those who offend against it may be excuses or more severely condemned, depending on other parts of the context. If a cosmology changes enough then it may provide a context in which the old ethics does not appear to work or make sense.

It appears to me that the somewhat precarious role of coal at the present, because of climate change (a change in context), has not yet rendered fossil fuels completely bad, but it does seem to render other people’s coal bad, and our coal ok – it is cleaner or something.

This is one reason why it seems important to fossil fuel companies to deny climate change, deny human responsibility for climate change, or find a model of the world in which burning fossil fuels is not harmful.

The problems of socially defining and enforcing Justice (which is an ethical position), particularly across culture and rivalrous nations, may make climate justice arguments ineffective in promoting climate action.


This suggests that ethics arises in making (or justifying) decisions, in conflict over those decisions, in supporting or criticising established behaviours, and within power relations. So ethics enters into human life and politics almost immediately. A wide view of ethics could easily suggest it is central to human life and to human identity.

I argue that to study ethics in action and the way it is built, reinforced and changed, we have to look at the following kinds of factors, all of which help resolve or limit the undecidability of ethics:

  • Cosmologies (the way people and reality works),
  • Established customs or habits – what people do regularly and publicly is supposed to be good. on the other hand changes in custom or habit may make new habits become ethically good
  • Group identities and relations to other groups. A good member of a group appears to express group values.
  • The way group boundaries are constructed and the group is positioned in relationship to other groups.
  • Contest and power relations – the other group is always bad, what we do is good, or at least acceptable in the context.
  • Dominance can become a custom which justifies the nature of the dominance. If wealthy people dominate then wealth marks virtue. If religious people dominate that piety marks virtue. If warriors dominate then boldness in combat marks virtue, and so on.
  • Context, the surrounding events may well alter ethical judgement and decision making.

All of this means that ethical argument may not be persuasive to others, unless you use their form of ethics and are a member of their social group, and perhaps not even then.

However, ethics, in practice, seems more social, contextual and political than absolute. It may be that pointing out the incoherence, or changing the contexts, customs and cosmologies of ethics, or perhaps pointing to exemplary people in the group being targeted who are slightly closer to the desired position, is more significant than attacking the basis of the ethics.