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Ethics: A Very Short Introduction

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Our self-image as moral, well-behaved creatures is dogged by scepticism, relativism, hypocrisy, and nihilism, by the fear that in a Godless world science has unmasked us as creatures fated by our genes to be selfish and tribalistic, or competitive and aggressive. In this clear introduction to ethics Simon Blackburn tackles the major moral questions surrounding birth, death, happiness, desire and freedom, showing us how we should think about the meaning of life, and how we should mistrust the soundbite-sized absolutes that often dominate moral debates.
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Ethics: A Very Short Introduction
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Simon Blackburn

A Very Short Introduction



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Being Good


This Very Short Introduction is shorter than Think, my other
introductory book, to which it stands as a younger sibling. Think
grew from a conviction that most introductions to philosophy were
unnecessarily dry and offputting; the present volume grew from a
parallel conviction that most introductions to ethics failed to confront
what really bothers people about the subject. What bothers them, I
believe, are the many causes we have to fear that ethical claims are a
kind of sham. The fear is called by names like relativism, scepticism, and
nihilism. I have tried to weave the book around an exploration of them.
But by the end it will be up to each reader to decide whether they have
been laid to rest, or whether, if like Dracula they rise again, they are at
least de-fanged.
I was invited to write this book by the editor of the series, Shelley Cox,
whose confidence and encouragement have been towers of strength to
me. The actual writing was done (will date the book) at the Research
School of Social Sciences of the Australian National University, perhaps
the most agreeable place in the world to embark on such a project. I owe
thanks to Michael Smith for the hospitality of the School. The
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has always given me
marvellous research support, and an equally marvellous critical
audience of colleagues and graduate students. Among them, I owe
thanks to Adrienne Martin, who read the proofs. As always, my principal
debt is to my wife Angela, whose editorial and typesetting skills are not

usually at the service of an author under the same roof, and so needed
matching by her equally remarkable patience and cheer.
24 November 2000


List of illustrations x



Seven threats to ethics 9
Some ethical ideas 49
Foundations 93


Notes and further reading 125
Picture credits


Bibliography 133


List of illustrations


Paul Klee, ‘Two Men Meet,
Each Believing the Other
To Be in a Higher

7 Richard Hamilton, ‘What
Is It that Makes Today’s
Homes So Different, So

2 Hung Cong (‘Nick’)
Ut, ‘Accidental Napalm
Attack, 1972’

8 William Hogarth, ‘The
Cock Fight’

3 Smilby, ‘This is the wall,
Foster . . .’
4 Matt Davies, ‘The Human
Genetic Code,
5 William Blake, ‘The Soul
Exploring the Recesses of
the Grave’
6 William Blake, ‘The Just
Upright Man is Laughed
to Scorn’

9 Leunig, ‘Gardens of the
Human Condition’

Eugène Delacroix, ‘Liberty
Leading the People’


George Grosz, ‘Waving the


Francisco de Goya, ‘As If
They Are Another


We have all learned to become sensitive to the physical
environment. We know that we depend upon it, that it is fragile,
and that we have the power to ruin it, thereby ruining our own lives,
or more probably those of our descendants. Perhaps fewer of us are
sensitive to what we might call the moral or ethical environment.
This is the surrounding climate of ideas about how to live. It
determines what we find acceptable or unacceptable, admirable or
contemptible. It determines our conception of when things are
going well and when they are going badly. It determines our
conception of what is due to us, and what is due from us, as we
relate to others. It shapes our emotional responses, determining
what is a cause of pride or shame, or anger or gratitude, or what can
be forgiven and what cannot. It gives us our standards – our
standards of behaviour. In the eyes of some thinkers, most famously
perhaps G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), it shapes our very identities.
Our consciousness of ourselves is largely or even essentially a
consciousness of how we stand for other people. We need stories of
our own value in the eyes of each other, the eyes of the world. Of
course, attempts to increase that value can be badly overdone, as
Paul Klee shows (Fig. 1).
The workings of the ethical environment can be strangely invisible.
I was once defending the practice of philosophy on a radio
programme where one of the other guests was a professional

1. Paul Klee, ‘Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other To Be in a Higher Position’. A comment on the servility
often involved in the ambition for respect.

There is a story about a physicist visiting his colleague Niels Bohr,
and expressing surprise at finding a good-luck horseshoe hanging
on the wall: ‘Surely you are not superstitious?’ ‘Oh, no, but I am told
it works whether you believe in it or not.’ Horseshoes do not, but the
ethical climate does.
An ethical climate is a different thing from a moralistic one. Indeed,
one of the marks of an ethical climate may be hostility to
moralizing, which is somehow out of place or bad form. Thinking
that will itself be a something that affects the way we live our lives.


survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. He asked me, fairly
aggressively, what use philosophy would have been on a death
march? The answer, of course, was not much – no more than
literature, art, music, mathematics, or science would be useful at
such a time. But consider the ethical environment that made such
events possible. Hitler said, ‘How lucky it is for rulers that men
cannot think.’ But in saying this he sounded as if he, too, was blind
to the ethical climate that enabled his own ideas, and hence his
power, to flourish. This climate included images of the primordial
purity of a particular race and people. It was permeated by fear for
the fragile nature of this purity. Like America in the post-war
McCarthy era, it feared pollution from ‘degenerates’ outside or
within. It included visions of national and racial destiny. It included
ideas of apocalyptic transformation through national solidarity and
military dedication to a cause. It was hospitable to the idea of the
leader whose godlike vision is authoritative and unchallengeable. In
turn, those ideas had roots in misapplications of Darwinism, in
German Romanticism, and indeed in some aspects of Judaism and
Christianity. In short, Hitler could come to power only because
people did think – but their thinking was poisoned by an enveloping
climate of ideas, many of which may not even have been conscious.
For we may not be aware of our ideas. An idea in this sense is a
tendency to accept routes of thought and feeling that we may not
recognize in ourselves, or even be able to articulate. Yet such
dispositions rule the social and political world.


So, for instance, one peculiarity of our present climate is that we
care much more about our rights than about our ‘good’. For
previous thinkers about ethics, such as those who wrote the
Upanishads, or Confucius, or Plato, or the founders of the Christian
tradition, the central concern was the state of one’s soul, meaning
some personal state of justice or harmony. Such a state might
include resignation and renunciation, or detachment, or obedience,
or knowledge, especially self-knowledge. For Plato there could be
no just political order except one populated by just citizens
(although this also allows that inner harmony or ‘justice’ in citizens
requires a just political order – there is nothing viciously circular
about this interplay).
Today we tend not to believe that; we tend to think that modern
constitutional democracies are fine regardless of the private vices of
those within them. We are much more nervous talking about our
good: it seems moralistic, or undemocratic, or elitist. Similarly, we
are nervous talking about duty. The Victorian ideal of a life devoted
to duty, or a calling, is substantially lost to us. So a greater
proportion of our moral energy goes to protecting claims against
each other, and that includes protecting the state of our soul as
purely private, purely our own business. We see some of the
workings of this aspect of our climate in this book.
Human beings are ethical animals. I do not mean that we naturally
behave particularly well, nor that we are endlessly telling each other
what to do. But we grade and evaluate, and compare and admire,
and claim and justify. We do not just ‘prefer’ this or that, in
isolation. We prefer that our preferences are shared; we turn them
into demands on each other. Events endlessly adjust our sense of
responsibility, our guilt and shame, and our sense of our own worth
and that of others. We hope for lives whose story leaves us looking
admirable; we like our weaknesses to be hidden and deniable.
Drama, literature, and poetry all work out ideas of standards of
behaviour and their consequences. This is overtly so in great art.
But it shows itself just as unmistakably in our relentless appetite for

gossip and the confession shows and the soap opera. Should Arlene
tell Charlene that Rod knows that Tod kissed Darlene, although
nobody has told Marlene? Is it required by loyalty to Charlene or
would it be a betrayal of Darlene? Watch on.
Reflection on the ethical climate is not the private preserve of a few
academic theorists in universities. After all, the satirist and
cartoonist, as well as the artist and the novelist, comment upon and
criticize the prevailing climate just as effectively as those who get
known as philosophers. The impact of a campaigning novelist, such
as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dickens, Zola, or Solzhenitsyn, may be
much greater than that of the academic theorist. A single
photograph may have done more to halt the Vietnam War than all
the writings of moral philosophers of the time put together (see

2. Hung Cong (‘Nick’) Ut, ‘Accidental Napalm Attack, 1972’.


Philosophy is certainly not alone in its engagement with the ethical


climate. But its reflections contain a distinctive ambition. The
ambition is to understand the springs of motivation, reason, and
feeling that move us. It is to understand the networks of rules or
‘norms’ that sustain our lives. The ambition is often one of finding
system in the apparent jumble of principles and goals that we
respect, or say we do. It is an enterprise of self-knowledge. Of
course, philosophers do not escape the climate, even as they reflect
on it. Any story about human nature in the contemporary climate is
a result of human nature and the contemporary climate. But such
stories may be better or worse, for all that.
Admiring the enterprise, aspiring to it, and even tolerating it, are
themselves moral stances. They can themselves flourish or wither at
different times, depending on how much we like what we see in the
mirror. Rejecting the enterprise is natural enough, especially when
things are comfortable. We all have a tendency to complacency with
our own ways, like the English aristocrat on the Grand Tour: ‘The
Italians call it a coltello, the French a couteau, the Germans a
Messer, but the English call it a knife, and when all is said and done,
that’s what it is.’
We do not like being told what to do. We want to enjoy our lives,
and we want to enjoy them with a good conscience. People who
disturb that equilibrium are uncomfortable, so moralists are often
uninvited guests at the feast, and we have a multitude of defences
against them. Analogously, some individuals can insulate
themselves from a poor physical environment, for a time. They may
profit by creating one. The owner can live upwind of his chemical
factory, and the logger may know that the trees will not give out
until after he is dead. Similarly, individuals can insulate themselves
from a poor moral environment, or profit from it. Just as some trees
flourish by depriving others of nutrients or light, so some people
flourish by depriving others of their due. The Western white male
may flourish because of the inferior economic or social status of
people who are not Western, or white, or male. Insofar as we are like
that, we will not want the lid to be lifted.

I therefore begin this book with a look at the responses we
sometimes give when ethics intrudes on our lives. These are
responses that in different ways constitute threats to ethics. After
that, in Part Two, we look at some of the problems that living throws
at us, and in particular the clash between principles of justice and
rights, and less forbidding notions such as happiness and freedom.
Finally, in Part Three we look at the question of foundations: the
ultimate justification for ethics, and its connection with human
knowledge and human progress.



Ethics is disturbing. We are often vaguely uncomfortable when we
think of such things as exploitation of the world’s resources, or the
way our comforts are provided by the miserable labour conditions
of the Third World. Sometimes, defensively, we get angry when such
things are brought up. But to be entrenched in a culture, rather
than merely belonging to the occasional rogue, exploitative
attitudes will themselves need a story. So an ethical climate may
allow talking of ‘the market’ as a justification for our high prices,
and talking of ‘their selfishness’ and ‘our rights’ as a justification for
anger at their high prices. Racists and sexists, like antebellum slave
owners in America, always have to tell themselves a story that
justifies their system. The ethical climate will sustain a conviction
that we are civilized, and they are not, or that we deserve better
fortune than them, or that we are intelligent, sensitive, rational, or
progressive, or scientific, or authoritative, or blessed, or alone to be
trusted with freedoms and rights, while they are not. An ethic gone
wrong is an essential preliminary to the sweat-shop or the
concentration camp and the death march.

This page intentionally left blank

Part One
Seven threats to ethics

This section looks at ideas that destabilize us when we think about
standards of choice and conduct. In various ways they seem to
suggest that ethics is somehow impossible. They are important
because they themselves can seep into the moral environment.
When they do, they can change what we expect from each other and
ourselves, usually for the worse. Under their influence, when we
look at the big words – justice, equality, freedom, rights – we see
only bids for power and clashes of power, or we see only hypocrisy,
or we see only our own opinions, unworthy to be foisted onto others.
Cynicism and self-consciousness paralyse us. In what follows we
consider seven such threats.

1. The death of God
For many people, ethics is not only tied up with religion, but is
completely settled by it. Such people do not need to think too much
about ethics, because there is an authoritative code of instructions,
a handbook of how to live. It is the word of Heaven, or the will of a
Being greater than ourselves. The standards of living become
known to us by revelation of this Being. Either we take ourselves to
perceive the fountainhead directly, or more often we have the
benefit of an intermediary – a priest, or a prophet, or a text, or a
tradition sufficiently in touch with the divine will to be able to
communicate it to us. Then we know what to do. Obedience to the

divine will is meritorious, and brings reward; disobedience is
lethally punished. In the Christian version, obedience brings
triumph over death, or everlasting life. Disobedience means eternal


In the 19th century, in the West, when traditional religious belief
began to lose its grip, many thinkers felt that ethics went with it. It
is not to the purpose here to assess whether such belief should have
lost its grip. Our question is the implication for our standards of
behaviour. Is it true that, as Dostoevsky said, ‘If God is dead,
everything is permitted’? It might seem to be true: without a
lawgiver, how can there be a law?
Before thinking about this more directly, we might take a diversion
through some of the shortcomings in traditional religious
instruction. Anyone reading the Bible might be troubled by some of
its precepts. The Old Testament God is partial to some people above
others, and above all jealous of his own pre-eminence, a strange
moral obsession. He seems to have no problem with a slave-owning
society, believes that birth control is a capital crime (Genesis 38: 9–
10), is keen on child abuse (Proverbs 22: 15, 23: 13–14, 29: 15), and,
for good measure, approves of fool abuse (Proverbs 26: 3). Indeed,
there is a letter going around the Internet, purporting to be written
to ‘Doctor Laura’, a fundamentalist agony aunt:
Dear Dr Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s
Law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that
knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to
defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him
that Leviticus 18: 22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of
debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of
the specific laws and how to best follow them.
a. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a
pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbors.

They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with
b. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in
Exodus 21: 7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair
price for her?
c. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in
her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15: 19–24). The problem
is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
d. Leviticus 25: 44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that
are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans,
but not Canadians. Can you clarify?
e. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus
35: 2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated

f. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is
an abomination (Lev. 10: 10), it is a lesser abomination than
homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?
g. Leviticus 21: 20 states that I may not approach the altar of God
if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading
glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle
room here?
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident
you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is
eternal and unchanging.

Things are usually supposed to get better in the New Testament,
with its admirable emphasis on love, forgiveness, and meekness. Yet
the overall story of ‘atonement’ and ‘redemption’ is morally dubious,
suggesting as it does that justice can be satisfied by the sacrifice of
an innocent for the sins of the guilty – the doctrine of the scapegoat.
Then the persona of Jesus in the Gospels has his fair share of moral
quirks. He can be sectarian: ‘Go not into the way of the Gentiles,

Seven threats to ethics

to kill him myself?


and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go rather to the
lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10: 5–6). In a similar vein, he
refuses help to the non-Jewish woman from Canaan with the
chilling racist remark, ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread,
and cast it to dogs’ (Matt. 15: 26; Mark 7: 27). He wants us to be
gentle, meek, and mild, but he himself is far from it: ‘Ye serpents, ye
generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’
(Matt. 23: 33). The episode of the Gadarene swine shows him to
share the then-popular belief that mental illness is caused by
possession by devils. It also shows that animal lives – also anybody
else’s property rights in pigs – have no value (Luke 8: 27–33). The
events of the fig tree in Bethany (Mark 11: 12–21) would make any
environmentalist’s hair stand on end.
Finally there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission. So
we might wonder as well why he is not shown explicitly
countermanding some of the rough bits of the Old Testament.
Exodus 22: 18, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’, helped to burn
alive tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and
America between around 1450 and 1780. It would have been
helpful to suffering humanity, one might think, had a supremely
good and caring and knowledgeable person, foreseeing this,
revoked the injunction.
All in all, then, the Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanche for
harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals, the
environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with various sexual
habits, and elderly women. It encourages harsh attitudes to
ourselves, as fallen creatures endlessly polluted by sin, and hatred of
ourselves inevitably brings hatred of others.
The philosopher who mounted the most famous and sustained
attack against the moral climate fostered by Christianity was
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Here he is in full flow:


Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and the oppressed
come to the fore: it is only those who are at the bottom who seek
their salvation in it. Here the prevailing pastime, the favourite
remedy for boredom is the discussion of sin, self-criticism, the
inquisition of conscience; here the emotion produced by power
(called ‘God’) is pumped up (by prayer); here the highest good is
regarded as unattainable, as a gift, as ‘grace’. Here, too, open
dealing is lacking; concealment and the darkened room are
Christian. Here body is despised and hygiene is denounced as
sensual; the church even ranges itself against cleanliness ( – the first
Christian order after the banishment of the Moors closed the public
baths, of which there were 270 in Cordova alone). Christian, too, is
a certain cruelty toward one’s self and toward others; hatred of
unbelievers; the will to persecute . . . And Christian is all hatred of
the intellect, of pride, of courage, of freedom, of intellectual
of joy in general.

Obviously there have been, and will be, apologists who want to
defend or explain away the embarrassing elements. Similarly,
apologists for Hinduism defend or explain away its involvement
with the caste system, and apologists for Islam defend or explain
away its harsh penal code or its attitude to women and infidels.
What is interesting, however, is that when we weigh up these
attempts we are ourselves in the process of assessing moral
standards. We are able to stand back from any text, however
entrenched, far enough to ask whether it represents an admirable or
acceptable morality, or whether we ought to accept some bits, but
reject others. So again the question arises: where do these standards
come from, if they have the authority to judge even our best
religious traditions?
The classic challenge to the idea that ethics can have a religious
foundation is provided by Plato (c. 429–347 bc), in the dialogue
known as the Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates, who is on the
point of being tried for impiety, encounters one Euthyphro, who

Seven threats to ethics

libertinage; Christian is all hatred of the senses, of joy in the senses,

sets himself up as knowing exactly what piety or justice is. Indeed,
so sure is he, that he is on the point of prosecuting his own father for
causing a death.
euth. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy,
and the opposite which they all hate, impious.
soc. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply
to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of
others? What do you say?
euth. We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will
stand the test of enquiry.
soc. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point
which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy
is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved


of the gods.

Once he has posed this question, Socrates has no trouble coming
down on one side of it:
soc. And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety,
according to your definition, loved by all the gods?
euth. Yes.
soc. Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?
euth. No, that is the reason.
soc. It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?
euth. Yes.
soc. And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them and is in a
state to be loved of them because it is loved of them?
euth. Certainly.
soc. Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthyphro, is not holy, nor
is that which is holy loved of God, as you affirm; but they are two
different things.

euth. How do you mean, Socrates?
soc. I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be
loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved.

The detour through an external god, then, seems worse than
irrelevant. It seems to distort the very idea of a standard of conduct.
As the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1824) put it, it
encourages us to act in accordance with a rule, but only because
of fear of punishment or some other incentive; whereas what we
really want is for people to act out of respect for a rule. This is what
true virtue requires. (I discuss these ideas of Kant’s more fully in
Part Three.)
We might wonder whether only a vulgarized religion should be
condemned so strongly. The question then becomes, what other
kind is there? A more adequate conception of God should certainly

Seven threats to ethics

The point is that God, or the gods, are not to be thought of as
arbitrary. They have to be regarded as selecting the right things to
allow and to forbid. They have to latch on to what is holy or just,
exactly as we do. It is not given that they do this simply because they
are powerful, or created everything, or have horrendous
punishments and delicious rewards in their gifts. That doesn’t make
them good. Furthermore, to obey their commandments just because
of their power would be servile and self-interested. Suppose, for
instance, I am minded to do something bad, such as to betray
someone’s trust. It isn’t good enough if I think: ‘Well, let me see, the
gains are such-and-such, but now I have to factor in the chance of
God hitting me hard if I do it. On the other hand, God is forgiving
and there is a good chance I can fob him off by confession, or by a
deathbed repentance later . . . ’ These are not the thoughts of a good
character. The good character is supposed to think: ‘It would be a
betrayal, so I won’t do it.’ That’s the end of the story. To go in for a
religious cost-benefit analysis is, in a phrase made famous by the
contemporary moral philosopher Bernard Williams, to have ‘one
thought too many’.

stop him from being a vindictive old man in the sky. Something
more abstract, perhaps? But in that mystical direction lies a god
who stands a long way away from human beings, and also from
human good or bad. As the Greek Stoic Epicurus (341–271 bc)
put it:
The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself nor causes
trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or
favour. For all such things exist only in the weak.


A really blessed and immortal nature is simply too grand to be
bothered by the doings of tiny human beings. It would be unfitting
for it to be worked up over whether human beings eat shellfish, or
have sex one way or another.
The alternative suggested by Plato’s dialogue is that religion gives a
mythical clothing and mythical authority to a morality that is just
there to begin with. Myth, in this sense, is not to be despised. It
gives us symbolism and examples that engage our imaginations. It
is the depository for humanity’s endless attempts to struggle with
death, desire, happiness, and good and evil. When an exile
reminisces, she will remember the songs and poems and folktales of
the homeland rather than its laws or its constitution. If the songs no
longer speak to her, she is on the way to forgetting. Similarly, we
may fear that when religion no longer speaks to us, we may be on
our way to forgetting some important part of history and human
experience. This may be a moral change, for better or worse. In this
analysis, religion is not the foundation of ethics, but its showcase or
its symbolic expression.
In other words, we drape our own standards with the stories of
divine origin as a way of asserting their authority. We do not just
have a standard of conduct that forbids, say, murder, but we have
mythological historical examples in which God expressed his
displeasure at cases of murder. Unhappily myth and religion stand
at the service of bad morals as well. We read back what we put in,

If all this is right, then the death of God is far from being a threat to
ethics. It is a necessary clearing of the ground, on the way to
revealing ethics for what it really is. Perhaps there cannot be laws
without a lawgiver. But Plato tells us that the ethical laws cannot be
the arbitrary whims of personalized gods. Maybe instead we can
make our own laws.

2. Relativism
So instead of anything with supernatural authority, perhaps we are
faced simply with rules of our own making. Then the thought arises
that the rules may be made in different ways by different people at
different times. In which case, it seems to follow that there is no one
truth. There are only the different truths of different communities.
This is the idea of relativism. Relativism gets a very bad press from
most moral philosophers. The ‘freshman relativist’ is a nightmare
figure of introductory classes in ethics, rather like the village atheist
(but what’s so good about village theism?). Yet there is a very

Seven threats to ethics

magnified and validated. We do not just fear science, or want to take
other peoples’ land, but we have examples in which God punishes
the desire for knowledge, or commands us to occupy the territory.
We have God’s authority for dominating nature, or for regarding
them – others different from ourselves – as inferior, or even
criminal. In other words, we have the full depressing spectacle of
people not only wanting to do something, but projecting upon their
gods the commands making it a right or a duty to do it. Religion on
this account is not the source of standards of behaviour, but a
projection of them, made precisely in order to dress them up with
an absolute authority. Religion serves to keep us apart from them,
and no doubt it has other social and psychological functions as well.
It can certainly be the means whereby unjust political authority
keeps its subjects docile: the opium of the people, as Marx put it.
The words of the hymn – God made the rich man in his castle and
the poor man at his gate – help to keep the lower orders resigned to
their fates.

attractive side to relativism, which is its association with toleration
of different ways of living. Nobody is comfortable now with the
blanket colonial certainty that just our way of doing things is right,
and that other people need forcing into those ways. It is good that
the 19th-century alliance between the missionary and the police has
more or less vanished. A more pluralistic and relaxed appreciation
of human diversity is often a welcome antidote to an embarrassing
The classic statement occurs in Book III of Herodotus’s Histories.
The Greek historian Herodotus (from the 5th century bc) is
criticizing the king Cambyses, son of Cyrus of Persia, who showed
insufficient respect for Persian laws:
Everything goes to make me certain that Cambyses was completely
mad; otherwise he would not have gone in for mocking religion and

tradition. If one were to order all mankind to choose the best set of
rules in the world, each group would, after due consideration, choose
its own customs; each group regards its own as being by far the best.
So it is unlikely that anyone except a madman would laugh at such
There is plenty of other evidence to support the idea that this opinion
of one’s own customs is universal, but here is one instance. During
Darius’s reign, he invited some Greeks who were present to a
conference, and asked them how much money it would take for them
to be prepared to eat the corpses of their fathers; they replied that
they would not do that for any amount of money. Next, Darius
summoned some members of the Indian tribe known as Callatiae,
who eat their parents, and asked them in the presence of the Greeks,
with an interpreter present so that they could understand what was
being said, how much money it would take for them to be willing to
cremate their fathers’ corpses; they cried out in horror and told him
not to say such appalling things. So these practices have become
enshrined as customs just as they are, and I think Pindar was right
to have said in his poem that custom is king of all.

Why does Herodotus show such scorn of Cambyses? It is
conventional to drive on either the right or the left, since each is an
equally good solution to the problem of coordinating which side we
drive. Presumably, then, just because of that, a latter-day Cambyses
who mocked our slavish obedience to the one rule or the other
would be mad. Certainly, there is only here the law of custom. But it
is necessary for there to be some rule, and hence there is nothing at
all to mock about whichever one we have hit upon.
In turn that suggests a limitation to the relativism. For now there
come into view norms or standards that are transcultural. In the
United States and Europe they drive on the right and in Britain and
Australia on the left, but in each country there has to be one rule, or

Seven threats to ethics

There are two rather different elements here. One is that the law of
custom is all that there is. The other is that the law of custom
deserves such respect that only those who are raving mad will mock
it. In our moral climate, many people find it easier to accept the first
than the second. They suppose that if our standards of conduct are
‘just ours’, then that strips them of any real authority. We might
equally well do things differently, and if we come to do so there is
neither real gain nor real loss. What is just or right in the eyes of one
people may not be so in the eyes of another, and neither side can
claim real truth, unique truth, for its particular rules. Arguing about
ethics is arguing about the place of the end of the rainbow:
something which is one thing from one point of view, and another
from another. A different way of putting it would be that any
particular set of standards is purely conventional, where the idea of
convention implies that there are other equally proper ways of
doing things, but that we just happen to have settled on one of
them. As the philosopher says in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers,
‘Certainly a tribe which believes it confers honour on its elders by
eating them is going to be viewed askance by another which prefers
to buy them a little bungalow somewhere.’ But he also goes on to
point out that in each tribe some notion of honour, or some notion
of what it is fitting to do, is at work.


chaos reigns and traffic grinds to a halt. Funerary practices certainly
vary, as Darius showed, but perhaps in every community, ever since
we stopped dragging our knuckles, there have been needs and
emotions that require satisfying by some ritual of passing. If an
airliner of any nationality goes down, the relatives and friends of the
victims feel grief, and their grief is worse when there is no
satisfactory ‘closure’ or suitably dignified way of identifying and
interring those who are lost. In Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone
(441 bc) the heroine is torn between two unyielding demands:
she must obey the king, who has forbidden burial to his dead
opponents in battle, and she must bury her brother, who was among
them. The second demand wins, and not only the ancient Greeks,
but we today, understand why. The play translates: Antigone’s sense
of honour makes sense to us.
So we are faced with a distinction between the transcultural
requirement ‘We need some way of coping with death’ and the local
implementation ‘This is the way we have hit upon’. This is what
qualifies the relativism. If everybody needs the rule that there
should be some rule, that itself represents a universal standard. It
can then be suggested that the core of ethics is universal in just this
way. Every society that is recognizably human will need some
institution of property (some distinction between ‘mine’ and
‘yours’), some norm governing truth-telling, some conception of
promise-giving, some standards restraining violence and killing. It
will need some devices for regulating sexual expression, some sense
of what is appropriate by way of treating strangers, or minorities, or
children, or the aged, or the handicapped. It will need some sense
of how to distribute resources, and how to treat those who have
none. In other words, across the whole spectrum of life, it will need
some sense of what is expected and what is out of line. For human
beings, there is no living without standards of living. This certainly
suggests part of an answer to relativism, but by itself it only gets us
so far. For there is no argument here that the standards have to be
fundamentally the same. There might still be the ‘different truths’
of different peoples.

We can approach the idea of universality a different way, however,
and a way that brings into focus what is for many a serious moral
dilemma. We saw above that toleration is often a good, and we do
well to put many imperialistic certainties behind us. When in Rome
do as the Romans do – but what if the Romans go in for some rather
nasty doings? We do not have to lift the lid very far to find societies
whose norms allow the systematic mistreatment of many groups.
There are slave-owning societies and caste societies, societies that
tolerate widow-burning, or enforce female genital mutilation, or
systematically deny education and other rights to women. There are
societies where there is no freedom of political expression, or whose
treatment of criminals cannot be thought of without a shudder, or
where distinctions of religion or language bring with them
distinctions of legal and civil status.

Here it is natural to look to the language of justice and of ‘rights’.
There are human rights, which these practices flout and deny. But
the denial of rights is everybody’s concern. If young children are
denied education but exploited for labour, or if, as in some North
African countries, young girls are terrifyingly and painfully
mutilated so that thereafter they cannot enjoy natural and
pleasurable human sexuality, that is not OK, anywhere or any time.
If they do it, then we have to be against them.
Many people will want to take such a stand, but then they get
confused and defeated by the relativistic thought that, even as we
say this, it is still ‘just us’. The moral expressions of the last two
paragraphs embody good, liberal, Western standards. They are

Seven threats to ethics

Here we have a clash. On the one hand there is the relativist thought
that ‘If they do it that way, it’s OK for them and in any event none of
my business’. On the other there is the strong feeling most of us
have that these things just should not happen, and we should not
stand idly by while they do. We have only perverted or failed
solutions to the problems of which standards to implement, if the
standards end up like that.

cemented in documents such as the United Nations’ Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix; an extract is below).

Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act
towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in
this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race,
colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national


or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the
political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or
territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent,
trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of

Article 3
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave
trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person
before the law.

Article 7
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to
equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this
Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
The First Seven Articles

We can, of course, insist on our standards, or thump the table. But
while we think of ourselves as doing no more than thumping the
table, there will be a little voice saying that we are ‘merely’ imposing
our wills on the others. Table-thumping displays our confidence,
but it will not silence the relativistic imp on our shoulders. This is
illustrated by a nice anecdote of a friend of mine. He was present at
a high-powered ethics institute which had put on a forum in which
representatives of the great religions held a panel debate. First the
Buddhist talked of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path
of enlightenment, and the panellists all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if that
works for you that’s great.’ Then the Hindu talked of the cycles of
suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the
way to release, and they all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you
that’s great.’ And so on, until the Catholic priest talked of the
message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation, and the way to life
eternal, and they all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s

Seven threats to ethics

But are they any more than just ours, just now? And if we cannot
see them as more than that, then who are we to impose them on
others? Multiculturalism seems to block liberalism.

great.’ And he thumped the table and shouted, ‘No! It’s not a
question of if it works for me! It’s the true word of the living God,
and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to hell!’
And they all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great.’


The joke here lies in the mismatch between what the priest intends
– a claim to unique authority and truth – and what he is heard as
offering, which is a particular avowal, satisfying to him, but only to
be tolerated or patronized, like any other. The moral is that once a
relativist frame of mind is really in place, nothing – no claims to
truth, authority, certainty, or necessity – will be audible except as
one more saying like all the others. Of course that person talks of
certainty and truth, says the relativist. That’s just his certainty and
truth, made absolute for him, which means no more than ‘made
into a fetish’.
Can we find arguments to unsettle the relativist’s frame of mind?
Can we do more than thump the table? If we cannot, does that
mean we have to stop thumping it? We return to these questions in
the final section of this book. Meanwhile, here are two thoughts to
leave with. The first counteracts the idea that we are just ‘imposing’
parochial, Western standards when, in the name of universal human
rights, we oppose oppressions of people on grounds of gender, caste,
race, or religion. Partly, we can say that it is usually not a question of
imposing anything. It is a question of cooperating with the
oppressed and supporting their emancipation. More importantly, it
is usually not at all certain that the values we are upholding are so
very alien to the others (this is one of the places where we are let
down by thinking simplistically of hermetically sealed cultures:
them and us). After all, it is typically only the oppressors who are
spokespersons for their culture or their ways of doing it. It is not the
slaves who value slavery, or the women who value the fact that they
may not take employment, or the young girls who value
disfigurement. It is the brahmins, mullahs, priests, and elders who
hold themselves to be spokesmen for their culture. What the rest

think about it all too often goes unrecorded. Just as victors write the
history, so it is those on top who write their justification for the top
being where it is. Those on the bottom don’t get to say anything.

Sometimes, indeed, ethical conversations need stopping. We are
getting nowhere, we agree to differ. But not always. Sometimes we
shouldn’t stop, and sometimes we cannot risk stopping. If my wife
thinks guests ought to be allowed to smoke, and I think they ought
not, we had better talk it through and do what we can to persuade
the other or find a compromise. The alternatives may be force or
divorce, which are a lot worse. And in our practice, if not in our
reflections, we all know this. The freshman relativists who say, ‘Well,
it’s just an opinion,’ one moment, will demonstrate the most intense
attachment to a particular opinion the next, when the issue is

Seven threats to ethics

The second thought is this. Relativism taken to its limit becomes
subjectivism: not the view that each culture or society has its own
truth, but that each individual has his or her own truth. And who is
to say which is right? So, when at the beginning of the last section I
offered some moral remarks about the Old and New Testaments, I
can imagine someone shrugging, ‘Well, that’s just your opinion.’ It is
curious how popular this response is in moral discussions. For
notice that it is a conversation-stopper rather than a move in the
intended conversation. It is not a reason for or against the proffered
opinion, nor is it an invitation for the speaker’s reasons, nor any
kind of persuasion that it is better to think something else. Anyone
sincere is of course voicing their own opinion – that’s a tautology
(what else could they be doing?). But the opinion is put forward as
something to be agreed with, or at any rate to be taken seriously or
weighed for what it is by the audience. The speaker is saying, ‘This is
my opinion, and here are the reasons for it, and if you have reasons
against it we had better look at them.’ If the opinion is to be rejected,
the next move should be, ‘No, you shouldn’t think that because . . . ’
That is, an ethical conversation is not like ‘I like ice-cream’, ‘I
don’t’, where the difference doesn’t matter. It is like ‘Do this’, ‘Don’t
do this’, where the difference is disagreement, and does matter.


stopping hunting, or preventing vivisection, or permitting
abortion – something they care about.
The conversation-stopping response is tempting because of a
philosophical view. This is that ethics is somehow ‘ungrounded’.
The view is that there is nothing to show that one view or another is
right, or nothing in virtue of which an ethical remark can be true.
Ethics has no subject matter. This kind of thought has a potent
philosophical backing. We suppose that the world is exhausted by
what is the case. A creating event only has to make the physical
world, and everything else, including humanity, rolls out. But the
physical world contains only is and not ought. So there is no fact
making ethical commitments true. Nor could we detect any such
fact. We can have no senses (ears, eyes, touch) for responding to
ethical facts, and no instruments for detecting their truth. We
respond only to what is true, never to what ought to be true. Thus
nihilism, or the doctrine that there are no values, grips us, as well as
scepticism, the doctrine that even if there were, we would have no
way of knowing about them.
I come back to this later, at the end of Part Three. But however the
philosophy pans out, it is premature to think that discussion about
who or what to admire, how to behave, or what we owe to each
other should cease because of it. There must be a course between
the soggy sands of relativism and the cold rocks of dogmatism.

3. Egoism
We are pretty selfish animals. Perhaps it is worse than that: perhaps
we are totally selfish animals. Perhaps concern for others, or
concern for principle, is a sham. Perhaps ethics needs unmasking. It
is just the whistle on the engine, not the steam that moves it.
How can we tell? Let us think about method for a moment. On the
face of it, there are two fairly good methods for finding what people
actually care about. One is to ask them, and gauge the sincerity of

their response and the plausibility of what they say. The other is to
see what they do and try to do. Neither method is infallible. People
may deceive us. And they may be deceived about themselves.
Incidentally, this is not, as is commonly supposed, an insight due to
Freud. It has a philosophical, literary, and theological pedigree
probably stretching back to the origins of thought itself. A nice early
example is the idea of the Greek Stoics that all ambition is due to
fear of death: if a man wants statues raised to himself, it is because
unconsciously he is afraid of dying, but of course he is not likely to
realize that. A permanent strand in Christian thought is that we
have no insight, or even lie to ourselves, about our heart’s desires.

Does our nurturing father really care for his children? Fallibility still
threatens. Life and literature throw up cases where everything looks
in line with one interpretation, yet another one seems to be
hovering. Maybe this model father is scared of his wife, and knows
that behaviour that apparently indicates concern for his children is
what she expects. Or he may be scared of public opinion, or be
angling for a certain kind of reputation to further his political

Seven threats to ethics

Ordinarily, we can cope with fallibility by shrinking the likelihood
of a mistake. We can check on what people say by seeing what they
do. A man may present himself as a dutiful and nurturing father,
and believe himself to be such. But if he never makes or takes an
opportunity to be with his children, we have our doubts. Suppose,
though, he does make such opportunities, and gladly takes them,
and shows few or no regrets for what other pleasures he may be
missing by taking them. Then the thing is settled: he cares about his
children. In other cases, the diagnosis of smoke screen and
hypocrisy beckons. The British government, not unlike others,
currently uses the rhetoric of moral duty, civilized missions, and the
rest in order to sound good about putting peace-keepers into many
of the one hundred or so countries to whom it regularly and
copiously sells arms. It is not too difficult to see the mask of concern
for what it is. Everyone likes to have the words of ethics on their side
(as Smilby illustrates on the next page).

3. ‘This is the wall, Foster. We’d like you to knock up some sort of apt
and symbolic mural – you know the sort of thing – The Chairman and
Board presiding over the Twin Spirits of Art and Industry as they rise
from the Waters of Diligence to reap the rich harvest of Prosperity
while the Three Muses, Faith, Hope, and Charity flanked by Enterprise
and Initiative, bless the Corporation and encourage the shareholders.’
(Cartoon by Smilby.)

career. We can look at the settled pattern of his behaviour as well as
his sayings, and still wonder whether things are as they seem.
We can, but again we have methods to follow. Suppose the man’s
wife disappears, but he goes on nurturing as before. Or suppose his
political career dies, yet he still carries on as a good father should.
This rules out the idea that it was fear of his wife or hope of office
that motivated him. The natural interpretation, that he cares for the
children and enjoys being with them, is the only one to survive.

Keeping our feet on the ground, we should ask what distinguishes
appropriate or accurate use of this method from mere fancy. The
philosopher Karl Popper (1902–94) told a story about describing a
case to the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. Adler listened to the

Seven threats to ethics

In the 19th and 20th centuries, these homely methods began to lose
ground. As the Stoics did, people bowed before the idea of hidden
and unconscious meanings, uncovered only by a Grand Unifying
Theory of human nature. The idea had one foot in ‘hermeneutics’
or the practice of interpretation. This was originally the enterprise
of discovering hidden ‘signatures’ written by God into natural
features, so that, for example, the shape of plants might indicate
what they would cure. It also meant uncovering the hidden
meanings behind the analogies, parables, and apparently
unbelievable historical reports of Scripture. In its modern
application, to the hermeneutic eye things may be similarly far
from what they seem. So we get the view that pacifism conceals
aggression, or a desire to help masks a desire for power, or
politeness is an expression of contempt, or contented celibacy
expresses a raging desire to procreate. Perhaps everything comes
down to sex, or status, or power, or death – hermeneutics is very
good at one-word solutions. It is also good at one-word dismissals
of any rejection of its one-word solutions: the truth is repressed; it
is hidden by false consciousness. In fact, the subject’s resistance to
any proffered hermeneutic interpretation can become an index of
how true it is. The ideology becomes closed.


description, and unhesitatingly pronounced castration anxiety,
father jealousy, desire to sleep with the mother, or whatever it was.
When he had finished, Popper asked him how he knew. ‘Because of
my thousand-fold experience’, came the reply. ‘And with this new
case’, said Popper, according to his own report, ‘I suppose your
experience has become a thousand-and-one-fold.’ Grand Unifying
Theories do not often stoop to offer themselves to empirical test.
We have strayed here from ethics into fascinating general issues in
the theory of knowledge. I will make only one further remark. A
Grand Unifying Theory can go along with good insights. It can unify
otherwise disparate and puzzling human phenomena. In his famous
book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the sociologist
Thorstein Veblen noticed a whole slew of strange facts along the
following lines. First, itinerant workers who earn reasonable money
tend to be ‘showy’, carrying flashy jewellery and large bankrolls,
going in for high-stake poker games, and the like. Rooted peasants
who could easily afford it never do so. Second, people deplore the
taste of others who are just a little beneath them in wealth and
social status, more than they deplore the taste of those a long way
beneath them. Third, an aristocrat will prefer an able-bodied man
as a butler or footman, rather than a female or someone
handicapped who could do the job equally well. Fourth, a well-kept
lawn or park is a good thing round a nice house.
Veblen unified these odd facts and many others with the theory that
people have a need for wasteful display in order to manifest their
status. The itinerant has to display this status on his person, and
hence the flashy appearance. We need to shout that we are not like
those just beneath us on the social ladder, for whom we might be
mistaken, more than we need to shout that we are not like those a
long way beneath us, for whom we won’t be mistaken. The
aristocrat (who might, after all, be impoverished) can better signal
plenty by keeping able-bodied servants in unproductive jobs than if
he keeps otherwise unemployable ones in their positions. Hence
footmen and butlers. Similarly with gardens, lawns, and parks,

which are beautiful just because they are ornamental and
unproductive (Veblen thought the need controls aesthetic
judgements as well). Veblen’s insight is summed up as the doctrine
of ‘conspicuous consumption’. But the label is in fact a misnomer.
The rooted peasant does not consume conspicuously. He does not
have to, just because everyone he cares about knows to within an
atom what he is worth.

Most Grand Unifying Theory, and particularly what we might dub
Grand Unifying Pessimism, is not so well-favoured. Consider the
dispiriting view that everybody always acts out of their own selfinterest. It can be very unclear what this means, but taken at face
value it is obviously false. People neglect their own interest or
sacrifice their own interest to other passions and concerns. This
neglect or sacrifice need not even be high-minded: the moralist
Joseph Butler (1692–1752) gives the example of a man who runs
upon certain ruin in order to avenge himself for an insult. Friends
with his interest at heart might try to dissuade him, but fail. What
this man may need to do is to act more out of self-interest, so that
anticipating his ruin checks his desire for revenge. But if his desire
had been for the welfare of others, or for the preservation of the rain
forest, or for the reduction of Third-World debt, the fact that he was
neglecting or sacrificing his own interest might have seemed

Seven threats to ethics

The view that consumption has a lot more to do with vanity or
status than we might have supposed is immediately plausible and
was anticipated by many other thinkers, including Adam Smith
(1723–90). But once Veblen has stated it in a more precise form, we
can test it against our own experience and find if it works. It has the
hallmarks of a good scientific theory. It is simple. It gives a unified
explanation of otherwise diverse and disconnected patterns of
behaviour. It is predictive (for instance, it would predict the
pressure on the rooted peasant to put on a suit for his journey to
town, where his worth is unknown). And it is falsifiable: for we
might come across instances where the theory seems not to work,
and it would need adjusting or abandoning in the light of them.


irrelevant. It is what the situation calls for in his eyes, and if we
share his standards, perhaps in ours as well. If he spends his fortune
or ruins his health on these objects, he may regard himself as only
having done what he had to do.
There is a trick to be guarded against at this point. Someone might
read the last paragraph and complain: ‘That is all very well if we
think of someone’s self-interest only in terms of money, or career, or
even health. Certainly, people sacrifice these to other concerns. But
then we just have agents whose real interest or full self-interest
includes these other things: the revenge or the rain forest or the
Third-World debt. They are still just as self-interested as anyone
else.’ The reason this is a trick is that it empties the view of all
content. It kidnaps the word ‘self-interest’ for whatever the agent is
concerned about. But just for that reason it loses any predictive or
explanatory force. With this understanding of interest or selfinterest you could never say, ‘Watch, the agent won’t do this but will
do that because, like all agents, she acts out of self-interest.’ All you
can do is wait to see what the agent in fact does, and then read back
and boringly announce that this is where her interest lay. The move
is not only boring but a nuisance, since, as Butler puts it, this is not
the language of mankind. It would have us saying that if I stand
back in order for the women and children to get in the lifeboat, then
my self-interest lay in their being in the lifeboat rather than me.
And this is just not the way we describe such an action. It appears to
add a cynical reinterpretation of the agent, but in fact it adds
Perhaps surprisingly, we can see the general falsity of egoism by
thinking of particular cases where it is indeed true. These are cases
where an appearance of some larger concern does in fact disguise
self-interest. Suppose two people give to a charity. Suppose it comes
out that the charity is corrupt, and proceeds do not go to the
starving poor but to the directors. And suppose that on receiving
this news the first person is irritated and angry, not so much at the
directors of the charity, but at the person bringing the news (‘Why

bring this up? Just let me be’); whereas the second person is
indignant at the directors themselves. Then we can reasonably
suggest that the first person prized his own peace of mind or
reputation for generosity more than he cared about the starving
poor; whereas the second has a more genuine concern for what goes
on in the world, not for whether he is comfortable or how he stands
in the eyes of others.
Fortunately, however, we are not all like the first person, or not all
the time. We can be indignant at the directors, just as we are
indignant at many things that go on around us. We don’t always
shoot the messenger, and we can want to be told the truth because it
is a truth that concerns us.

There exists a vague belief that some combination of evolutionary
theory, biology, and neuroscience will support a Grand Unifying
Pessimism. Indeed, most of the popular books on ethics in the
bookstores fall into one of two camps. There are those that
provide chicken soup for the soul: soggy confections of consolation
and uplift. Or, there are those that are written by one or another life
scientist: a neuroscientist or biologist or animal behaviourist or
evolutionary theorist, anxious to tell that ‘science’ has shown that
we are all one thing or another. Once more we stand unmasked:
human beings are ‘programmed’. We are egoists, altruism doesn’t
exist, ethics is only a fig-leaf for selfish strategies, we are all
conditioned, women are nurturing, men are rapists, we care above
all for our genes. There is good news and bad news about the
popularity of this genre. The good news is that we do have a
relentless appetite for self-interpretation. There is a huge desire to
find patterns of behaviour, enabling us to understand and perhaps
control the human flux. The bad news is that we will accord
authority to anyone in a white coat, even when the science is over
(for as we are about to see, talking of the significance of science is
not talking science).

Seven threats to ethics

4. Evolutionary theory


We should only venture into this literature if we are armed
against three confusions. The first is this. It is one thing to
explain how we come to be as we are. It is a different thing to
say that we are different from what we think we are. Yet these
are fatally easy to confuse with each other. Suppose, for instance,
evolutionary theory tells us that mother-love is an adaptation.
This means that it has been ‘selected for’, because animals in
which it exists reproduce and spread their genetic material more
successfully than ones in which it does not. We could, if we like,
imagine a ‘gene for mother-love’. Then the claim would be that
animals with this gene are and have been more successful than
animals having only a variant (an allele) that does not code for
mother-love (this is likely to be grossly oversimplified, but it’s a
model that will make the point). The confusion would be to infer
that therefore there is not really any such thing as mother-love:
thus we unmask it! The confusion is to infer that underneath the
mask we are only concerned to spread genetic material more
Not only does this not follow, but it actually contradicts the starting
point. The starting point is ‘Mother-love exists, and this is why’; the
conclusion is that mother-love doesn’t exist.
In other words, an evolutionary story, plausible or not, about the
genetic function of a trait such as mother-love must not be
confused with a psychological story unmasking a mother’s ‘real
concern’. We should not rear a generation of children taught to
turn round and say, ‘You didn’t really care about me, you only cared
about your genes.’ Perhaps nobody would make this mistake so
baldly in this instance. But consider the idea of ‘reciprocal
altruism’. Game theorists and biologists noticed that animals
frequently help each other when it would seem to be to their
advantage not to do so. They asked the perfectly good question of
how such behaviour could have evolved, when it looks set to lose
out to a more selfish strategy. The answer is (or may be) that it is
adaptive insofar as it triggers reciprocal helping behaviour from the

animal helped, or from others witnessing the original event. In
other words, we have a version of ‘You scratch my back and I’ll
scratch yours’.

To guard against this confusion, contemplate sexual desire. It has
an adaptive function, presumably, which is the propagation of the
species. But it is completely off the wall to suppose that those in
the grip of sexual desire ‘really’ want to propagate the species.
Most of the time most of us emphatically do not – otherwise
there would be no birth control, elderly sex, homosexuality,
solitary sex, and other variations – and many people never do.
Some moralists might wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t (see
Fig. 4).
So, this first confusion is to infer that our apparent concerns are not
our real concerns, simply from the fact of an evolutionary
explanation of them.
The second confusion is to infer the impossibility that

Seven threats to ethics

The explanation may be perfectly correct. It may provide the reason
why we ourselves have inherited altruistic tendencies. The
confusion strikes again, however, when it is inferred that altruism
doesn’t really exist, or that we don’t really care disinterestedly for
one another – we only care to maximize our chance of getting a
return on our investments of helping behaviour. The mistake is just
the same – inferring that the psychology is not what it seems
because of its functional explanation – but it seems more seductive
here, probably because we fear that the conclusion is true more
often in this case than in the case of mother-love. There are indeed
cases of seeming altruism disguising hope for future benefits. But
there are of course cases in which it is not like this, and shown to be
such by the methods of the last section. The driver gives the
penniless hitch-hiker a lift; the diner tips the waiter he knows he
will never see again; they each do it when there are no bystanders to
watch the action.

4. Matt Davies, ‘The Human Genetic Code, Deciphered’.

such-and-such a concern should exist, from the fact that we have no
evolutionary explanation for it. This is unwarranted, for it may well
be that there is no evolutionary explanation for all kinds of quirks:
no explanation for why we enjoy birdsong, or like the taste of
cinnamon, or have ticklish feet. The cartoon says it all.

The third confusion to guard against is to read psychology into
nature, and in particular into the gene, and then read it back into
the person whose gene it is. The most notorious example of this
mistake is in The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. Here the fact

Seven threats to ethics

These traits may be side-effects of others that are adaptive, or they
may be descendants of traits that were once adaptive but are so no
longer, or they may be nothing to do with adaptations, but just due
to chance. Or they may be adaptations but only because they affect
the ‘eye of the beholder’: perhaps it is more pleasurable to be with a
partner who has ticklish feet, and then a mechanism of ‘sexual
selection’ kicks in to boost the prevalence of the trait. That throws
us back onto the question of why the pleasure and the preference
exists, but perhaps it just does. Female peacocks go for the huge,
beautiful, but apparently dysfunctional tails of the male, and female
Irish elks went for the male practically immobilized by the biggest
antlers. It is not easy to see why, and this problem can unfit
explanations in terms of sexual selection for some purposes. For
instance, if we find the human propensity for art or music puzzling
because we cannot find a survival function for it, it doesn’t
immediately help to suggest that females prefer artistic and musical
men, since we won’t be able to find a survival function for that
female preference, either. What this means is that the explanation
has to continue. It might continue by showing that females
recognize that artistry and musicianship indicate other survivalenhancing traits, such as industry or cunning (the peacock’s gaudy
tail may indicate freedom from disease, or the elk’s antlers indicate
its strength). Or, it might postulate a ‘trembling hand’ – a random
jerk in the evolutionary process, such as the inaccurate copying of a
gene, that just happened to entrench itself.


that genes replicate and have a different chance of replicating in
different environments is presented metaphorically in terms of
their being ‘selfish’ and indulging a kind of ruthless competition to
beat out other genes. It is then inferred that the human animal must
itself be selfish, since somehow this is the only appropriate
psychology for the vehicle in which these little monsters are carried.
Or at least, if we are not selfish, it is because by some strange
miracle we can transcend and fight off the genetic pressure to be so.
Dawkins has since repudiated this idea, but it maintains a life of its
To state this train of thought is to expose its silliness. Genes are not
selfish – they just have different chances of replicating themselves in
different environments. Not only may they do better if the person
carrying them is unselfish, altruistic, and principled, but it is easy to
see why this should be so. A society of unselfish, altruistic, and
principled persons is obviously set to do better than a group in
which there are none of these traits, but only a ‘war of all against all’.
Furthermore, the environment in which we human beings flourish
is largely a social environment. We succeed in the eyes of each other.
Hence, a principle like that of sexual selection kicks in: if these are
traits we admire in each other, they are likely to be successful not
only for the society as a whole, but also for any individual who has
them. And we do admire them. We see more of the association
between being good and living well in section 17.

5. Determinism and futility
The other implication of the life sciences that threatens ethics, in
many peoples’ minds, is the threat of determinism. The idea here is
that since it is ‘all in the genes’, the enterprise of ethics becomes
hopeless. The basket of motivations that in fact move people may
not be as simple as the Grand Unifying Theories have it, but they
may be fixed. And then we just do as we are programmed to do. It is
no use railing about it or regretting it: we cannot kick against

This raises the whole thorny topic of free will. Here, I want to look
at only one particular version of the problem. This takes our genetic
make-up to imply the futility of ethics, meaning in particular the
futility of moral advice or education or experience. The threat is the
paralysing effect of realizing that we are what we are: large
mammals, made in accordance with genetic instructions about
which we can do nothing.

The answer is No, because whatever our genetic make-up programs
us to do, it leaves room for what we can call ‘input-responsiveness’.
It leaves room for us to vary our behaviour in response to what we
hear or feel or touch or see (otherwise there would be little point in

Seven threats to ethics

A moral enterprise might be hopeless because it tries to alter fixed
nature. A prohibition on long hair may be enforceable, say in the
army or the police force. But a prohibition on growing hair at all is
not, since we are indeed programmed to do it. An order forbidding
hunger or thirst is futile, since we cannot control them. Some cases
are less clear. Imagine a particularly ascetic monastic order, whose
rule not only enjoins chastity, but forbids sexual desire. The rule is
probably futile. It cannot be obeyed because it is not up to us
whether we feel sexual desire. At the right time the hormones boil,
and sexual desire bubbles up (lust was an object of particular horror
to early Christian moralists just because of its ‘rebellious’ or
involuntary nature). The chemical instructions are genetically
encoded. There may indeed be marginal technologies of control:
yoga, or biofeedback, or drugs. But for most young people most of
the time, any injunction not to feel desire is futile. This is not to say
that the injunction has no effect at all. It may well bring shame and
embarrassment to those who find that they cannot conform to it.
This may even be its function, since it may thereby reinforce their
subservience in the face of the implacable authority that
commanded it. It can increase the power of churches or parents to
keep their dependents in a state of guilt or a state of shame. But the
rule is directly futile: it cannot be obeyed. So the question is, are all
rules similarly futile, because of genetic determinism?


having these senses in the first place). It leaves room for us to vary
our desires in accordance with what we learn (discovering that the
glass contains sulphuric acid, I lose the desire to drink it that I had
when I thought it contained gin). It leaves room for us to be
influenced by information gathered from others. Finally, it leaves
room for us to be affected by the attitudes of others. In other words,
it makes us responsive to the moral climate.
If we liked paradox, we might put this by saying that genetics
programs us to be flexible. But there is no paradox, really. Even an
inanimate structure that is literally programmed can be made to be
flexible. A chess program will be designed to give a different
response depending on what move its opponent has just made. It is
input-responsive. Inflexible traits (growing hair) are not inputresponsive because no matter what beliefs, desires, or attitudes we
have, they go on just the same. But many of our own beliefs and
desires and attitudes are not like that. They show endless plasticity.
They vary with our surroundings, including the moral climate in
which we find ourselves.
It is an empirical matter how flexible we are in any particular
respect. Thus, consider language. Many theorists believe that the
extraordinary facility with which children pick up language requires
a dedicated ‘module’ or structure within the brain that has this as its
function. Its function is not to pick up English, German, or Latin,
for any child can pick up any language. Its function is to pick up
whichever language the child grows up with: its mother tongue, or
tongues if it is lucky. After a time, the evidence suggests, this
flexibility is substantially lost. Beyond about the age of twelve, it is
almost impossible to pick up a language so as to speak it like a
native. The responsiveness diminishes or vanishes. We are no
longer so good at copying the inputs and finding ourselves falling in
with the grammar of what we hear.
So, for all genetics tells us, a child may be disposed to become kind
and loving in a kind and loving environment, vicious and aggressive

in a vicious and aggressive one, intellectual and musical in an
intellectual and musical one. Or, these dispositions may in turn be
liable to be displaced if other factors influence things. We just have
to look and see.
Very possibly, what we may find is greater receptivity at some stages,
and relative inflexibility thereafter, rather as in the case of language.
If this is so, far from sidelining the importance of the moral
environment, the excursus through determinism will catapult it to
the head of the agenda. That is where it should be if it turns out
that, once we have been weaned into an atmosphere of violence,
aggression, insensitivity, sentimentality, manipulation, and
furtiveness – the everyday world of television, for example – we can
never or almost never climb out.

6. Unreasonable demands
I have argued for moderate optimism about human nature, at least
blocking the Grand Unifying Theories – the ones we called Grand
Unifying Pessimisms – we have met so far. But we have to be
realistic, and we should not demand too much from ourselves
and each other.
Then the threat arises that ethics does just that, and not in some
overblown, over-demanding version, but at its very core. And then
we get the reaction that ‘It’s all very well in principle, but in practice
it just won’t work’. As Kant remarked, this is ‘said in a lofty,
disdainful tone, full of the presumption of wanting to reform reason
by experience’. Kant finds it especially offensive, contrasting the
‘dim, moles’ eyes fixed on experience’ with ‘the eyes belonging to a
being that was made to stand erect and look at the heavens’.
However, the threat is real, and we can consider several versions of

Seven threats to ethics

There are threats of futility other than determinism. There is the
mood in which all human life is futile. I discuss this in section 10.


it. First, consider a morality centred on a simple and abstract set of
rules. One of them may be ‘Thou shalt not lie’. Now of course when
we think of central examples of this rule, we are apt to approve of
it. We should not abuse other people’s trust in us, and a deliberate,
manipulative, barefaced lie may well do that. But there are other
cases. There are white lies, socially expected and condoned. There
are lies told to people who shouldn’t be asking, because it is none of
their business and they have no right to the truth. There are
desperate lies, told because telling the truth will be catastrophic (the
classic is lying to the mad axeman who asks you where your
children are sleeping). There are lies told in the service of a greater
truth (‘There is no danger’ may be literally false, but it puts the
passengers in a more appropriate frame of mind than ‘The risk is
quite small’). There are lies we perhaps in desperation tell ourselves,
and come to believe, before we tell others (‘It’s not the harmful kind
of cancer, dear’).
Some philosophers, most notoriously Kant, have grasped the nettle
and forbidden even such lies. It was central to Kant’s moral scheme
that the prohibition remained simple and absolute: no exceptions.
Suppose we agree with him. Then a perfectly reasonable reaction
from anyone muddling along in society, or from the mother facing
the axeman, or from the pilot calming the passengers, would be, ‘To
heck with that. If that’s what morality demands, then I’m opting
Here is a second example where the stringency of ethics can lead to
its rejection. Many theories of ethics highlight the impartial and
universal nature of the moral point of view. It is a point of view that
treats everyone equally: every person has equal weight. Unless there
are further factors, it is no better, from the moral point of view, that
I should have some goods and you should not, than that you should
have them and I should not. If the person without the goods is
starving, and the person with them has plenty, then morality
demands a split: the money is needed more by the starving. The
starvation of the poor demands redistribution from the rich.

It is easy to preach this, but much harder to practise it. Indeed there
is usually something ludicrous about the well-fed parson preaching
charity, or the even better-fed academic arguing that justice is not
served unless we have voluntary or involuntary redistribution
programmes which carve the entire cake equally, perhaps leaving
every single person just above a poverty line. If we accept, though,
that morality demands this of us, then again a natural reaction is to
shrug off its demands. It’s not going to happen; it’s impractical; we
can ignore it.

A different example of a bid to escape the stringency of behaving
well is the excuse of ‘dirty hands’. It’s a bad business manufacturing
arms, or selling cattle prods to various regimes. But, says the
manufacturer (or the government), if we don’t do it someone else
will. Then they have the jobs and reap the rewards. The arms and
prods get made just the same, so why should we sacrifice our wellbeing for the benefit of our competitors? The moralist, standing
erect and looking at the heavens, is simply out of touch with the
needs of the market. Ethics is all very well, but perhaps we cannot
afford it. At least the dim mole earns his living.

Seven threats to ethics

I do not think it is easy to find a stable attitude to the stringency of
the prohibition on lying, or still more to the duty of charity. But I do
think something has gone wrong if extreme demands are placed
squarely in the centre of ethics. The centre of ethics must be
occupied by things we can reasonably demand of each other. The
absoluteness of the fanatic, or the hair shirt of the saint, lie on the
outer shores. Not wanting to follow them there, or even not able to
do so, we still have plenty of standards left to uphold. We should
still want to respond to the reasonable demands of decency. We may
not be able to solve all the world’s problems, but we should do our
best with the ones we can solve. So the right reaction is to look for
moral principles that are not impractical, and not limitless in their
demands. Adhering to anything more stringent might be saintly,
and admirable, but it is not demanded of us. In the standard phrase,
it is above and beyond the call of duty.

There is something grubby, not only to Kant but to most of us, about
the excuse that this argument offers us. We have some sense that we
should keep our own hands clean, however much others will then
dirty theirs. The excuse is not open to a person of strict honour or
integrity, however convenient it may be in practice. In many areas,
it is not over and above the call of duty to keep our own hands clean.

7. False consciousness


In sections 3 and 4 we met Grand Unifying Pessimisms that tried to
discover hidden unconscious motivations, things that really move
us, leaving ethical concerns exposed as mere whistles on the engine.
We resisted their claims. But there is still room to argue that the
social role of morality is tainted. Even if the motivations of its
practitioners are sincere enough, this is because they have been
somehow sucked into a system. And the system may not be what it
Consider, for instance, a feminist criticism of a piece of male
behaviour. The man holds open a door for the woman, or offers to
carry her parcel, or gives up a seat for her. The feminist finds this
offensive. She does not have to say that the man intends to demean
the woman. His behaviour, the feminist maintains, is part of a
‘system’ or ‘pattern’ of such events whose net effect is a signal that
women are weaker or in need of male protection. And this she finds
offensive. Of course, the man in turn may find her offence offensive,
and up start political-correctness wars and gender wars.
The feminist may go in for the kind of hermeneutics we have met,
saying that the man unconsciously intends to demean the woman.
But that is unnecessary. She need not work at the level of individual
psychology. All she has to say is that the man behaves as he does
because of a system or socially institutionalized set of behaviours
that are entrenched in the society, and that the function of the
system is to demean women. This is enough for her critique to
gain a hold.

For another example of this kind of critique, imagine a sincere cleric
wringing his hands over his parishioners’ sins. He is genuinely
upset. He believes they are doing wrong, and fears for their souls.
His heart goes out to them. There is nothing, so far, wrong with
him. But he may be a part of a system with a rather more sinister
function for all that. The Church that taught him may be an
organization dedicated to its own power, and as we already
suggested, controlling peoples’ sense of shame and guilt and sin is
an instrument of power. It works best if the pawns, the individual
clerics, do not realize that, either consciously or unconsciously.

There may be a good deal of truth in some of these critiques. We can
think of local elements of morality, at particular places and times,
that certainly seem open to some such diagnosis. The passion with
which the rich defend the free market can invite the raised eyebrow.
A morality with or without the religious fig leaf we met earlier, that
gives us the right to their land, or the right to kill them for not having
the same rituals as us, invites a similar diagnosis. The self-serving
nature of systems of religion, or caste systems, or market systems,
can be almost entirely hidden from view to those who practise
There is something a little off-colour, as well, about some of the
ways morality sometimes intrudes into people’s lives. The judge, or
the priest, or a panel of the great and the good may tell people what
they must do, but they do not usually have to live with the

Seven threats to ethics

So a critic might now suggest that ethics as an institution (I shall
write this, ‘Ethics’) is a system whose real function is other than it
seems. A feminist might see it as an instrument of patriarchal
oppression. A Marxist can see it as an instrument of class
oppression. A Nietzschean may see it as a lie with which the feeble
and timid console themselves for their inability to seize life as it
should be seized. A modern French philosopher, such as Michel
Foucault, can see it as a diffuse exercise of power and control. In any
event, it stands unmasked.


consequences. If the girl is not allowed the abortion, or the family
not allowed to assist the suicide, they have to pick up the pieces and
soldier on themselves. Those who told them how they had to behave
can just bow out. An impartial moral law can bear very unevenly on
different people, and it is little wonder if people become
disenchanted by an ethics largely maintained by those who do not
have to live it. Anatole France spoke ironically of the majestic
equality of the laws which forbid rich and poor alike to sleep under
bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
Although we may well accept examples of this kind of critique, I
don’t think it could possibly be generalized to embrace all of ethics.
The reason is implicit in what we have already said: for human
beings, there is no living without standards of living. This means
that ethics is not Ethics: it is not an ‘institution’ or organization with
sinister hidden purposes that might be better unmasked. It is not
the creature of some concealed conspiracy by ‘them’: Society, or The
System, or The Patriarchy. There are indeed institutions, such as the
Church or State, that may seek to control our standards, and their
nature and function may need to be queried. But that will mean at
most a different ethic. It does not and cannot introduce the end
of ethics.
Every so often there arise movements for ‘free living’, based on
doing without the restrictions and prohibitions of bourgeois
morality. Usually this means in the first place free love – a natural
enough ambition for some of the young. (I remember in my first
year at university joining a society called the Theoretical
Amoralists, which sounded rather rakish. To my disappointment
all the other members were men. In any case, it remained theoretical.)
But experimenters in free living find they face a dilemma. Either
standards are introduced: standards of truth-telling, privacy, space,
use of materials, job rotas, and so on, eventually apt to include
property rights and rights connected with sexual bondings, or the
commune breaks up. If the scene is set so that it cannot break up
(more often in fiction than real life), disaster follows.

Central elements of our standards do indeed have a function, and it
may be hidden from practitioners. An ordinary person may just be
shocked at a broken promise, and that is the end of it. They do not
have to reflect on the function of promise-keeping. But if they do
reflect, then the point of the ‘institution’ of promising may come
into view. Its point will be something like this. By giving promises
we give each other confidence in what we are going to do, thus
enabling joint enterprises to go forward. That is a point we can be
proud of; without something serving that point, flexible plans for
coordinated action become impossible. Here the description of the
hidden function is not an ‘unmasking’ or a deconstruction. If
anything, it gives a boost to our respect for the norms surrounding
promise-keeping. It shows that it is not just something about which
we, the bourgeois, have a fetish. As I like to put it, it is not a
debunking explanation, but a bunking one.

There may be yet other threats to ethics. We can become depressed
by the role of luck in our lives. Suppose two drivers go down the
same road, each showing the same small degree of carelessness.
One arrives safely; the other kills a child who darts out in front. This

Seven threats to ethics

Other central elements of morality don’t even get this kind of
explanation. They are less of a human invention than is the device
of giving promises. Gratitude to those who have done us good,
sympathy with those in pain or in trouble, and dislike of those who
delight in causing pain and trouble, are natural to most of us, and
are good things. Almost any ethic will encourage them. Here there
is nothing to unmask: these are just features of how most of us are,
and how all of us are at our best. They are not the result of a
conspiracy, any more than the enjoyment of food or the fear of
death are: they just define how we live and how we want to live and
want others to live. Nietzsche indeed tried to ‘deconstruct’ the
benevolent emotions, railing against them as weak or slavish or lifedenying, but the attempt is unconvincing and unpleasant, a kind of
Hemingway machismo that regards decent human sympathy as

difference of luck affects how we think of them, how they think of
themselves, and even the penalties imposed by society and by the
law. Luck can do more to sway the ways our lives go than virtue. Yet
people are curiously unwilling to ackowledge this; we relentlessly
take responsibility, as the myth of original sin shows. It seems we
would prefer to be guilty than unlucky.


Again, even when we live benevolent, admired lives according to the
standards of our times, we can fear that had things been tougher we
would have joined the fallen. If we are good, it may be because we
were never tempted enough, or frightened enough, or put in
desperate enough need. We can also fear the restless evil in the
human heart. We know that neither success nor suffering ennobles
people. In such a mood, we can be overwhelmed just by the
relentless human capacity for making life horrible for others. The
right reaction is not to succumb to the mood, but to reflect that the
cure lies in our own hands.


Part Two
Some ethical ideas

In the first section we deflected some sceptical challenges to ethics.
There is more to be said, particularly about the threats of relativism,
nihilism, and scepticism, which still lurk. But for the moment I turn
from that in order to sketch some of the elements about which we
need to think. An ethic will crystallize our attitudes to the most
important events, such as birth and death. It will determine our
attitude to life and what makes it worth living. It will encapsulate
notions of human nature and human happiness, telling us what it is
for a human life to go well. It will describe desire, and freedom, and
our rights to the opportunities and powers that we need in life.
None of these notions is easy. Some of them are open invitations to

8. Birth
Throughout human history we have had only a few ways to control
how many children get born, and who they are. We could control
the gene pool, up to a point, by controlling who mated with whom.
This could be done directly only by selection of a partner, or socially
by arrangements of marriage and norms governing it. We could
control how many got born, by abstinence and perhaps by abortion.
We could also control which of those that were born got to grow up,
by infanticide or selective standards of upbringing. This is still far
more important than is generally realized. The Nobel prizewinning


economist Amartya Sen has calculated that there are over 100
million ‘missing women’ worldwide. That is, birth-rate statistics
from not only the developed world, but sub-Saharan Africa as well,
tell us that slightly more females should exist than males. But, in
fact, there are 100 million fewer living women than we should
expect – 44 million fewer in China and 37 million fewer in India
alone. The difference is due to inequalities in medical care and
sustenance, as well as deliberate infanticide, together making up
the world’s biggest issue of justice for women.
When we use any of these methods of control, we interfere with
what would otherwise have happened. We might be said to interfere
with nature. If ‘interfering with nature’ is, as some people
suggest, ‘playing God’ and therefore wrong, then we have always
played God. But that is not as bad as it seems. In that sense, we play
God as well when we put up an umbrella, interfering with the
natural tendency of rain to wet our heads. As humans, we are bound
to attempt to cope with the natural world, making things happen
that otherwise would not have happened, or preventing things from
happening that otherwise would have happened. The charge of
playing God has no independent force. That is, people only raise it
when the interference in question upsets them. If we have already
determined that some natural process must be allowed to run
unchecked, or that interfering with it is too risky or too radical, we
might use the words as a way of crystallizing our worry when people
propose to interfere. When anaesthetics were discovered, some
moralists complained that their use was impious. It was playing
God. Genetically engineered crops generate the same heat today.
The question is whether the upset and the worry are well-founded.
Most of us think it wasn’t in the case of anaesthetics, and the jury is
still out on genetically engineered crops.
As our technologies of control increase, so do the new questions
about how to use them. In particular, the question of genetic control
trails hideous historical baggage: that of the ‘eugenic’ movement,
with its associated assumptions of racial superiority and racial

purity, not to mention a simplistic science of heritability. Eugenics
may look set to come back with a vengeance as science continues to
unravel the genetic code, raising Frankenstein-like visions of
human beings designed to order out of the genome parts store. But
such visions are premature, at least. We saw in Part One something
of the extent to which plasticity rules. The fantasy of a Hitler clone,
therefore, complete with fascist ambitions and a little moustache,
forgets the fact that Hitler’s genetic instructions, followed in a
totally different environment, would have resulted in a totally
different person. Or, if not totally different, still nobody knows
what interesting similarities would be likely to remain. Certainly
not speaking German, obsession by racial theories, or interest in

In this short book it is impossible to go over