Ethics, some thoughts

Created 2002/09/23, last edited 2024/03/01
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©


Acacia notabilis blossom

Those to come after us

The burning of fossil fuels is widely recognised as the main cause of climate change and the associated problems of ocean acidification, sea level rise and ocean warming. The air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels kills millions of people world-wide each year.

Climate change is one of the greatest of the threats to those, human and non-human, who will come after us - and we are not behaving ethically in our neglect of our responsibility to them.


Britannica defines morality as "Conformity to ideals of right human conduct". Ethics is more to do with deciding what 'right human conduct' is; although 'ethical conduct', it seems to me, has much in common with morality.
Ethics is defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica as "the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong. The term is also applied to any system or theory of moral values or principles.

How should we live? Shall we aim at happiness or at knowledge, virtue, or the creation of beautiful objects? If we choose happiness, will it be our own or the happiness of all? And what of the more particular questions that face us: Is it right to be dishonest in a good cause? Can we justify living in opulence while elsewhere in the world people are starving? If conscripted to fight in a war we do not support, should we disobey the law? What are our obligations to the other creatures with whom we share this planet and to the generations of humans who will come after us?"

Ethics and morality are subjects that effect us all and should concern us all. If we live ethical lives we can have self-respect and a clear conscience. No amount of money or material possessions is as valuable as self-respect.

Ethics is largely about how we should interact with other people and with other sentient beings; about the limits to personal freedom and the rules and guidelines that must be made and adhered to if we are to function at our best (both for our own benefit and for the benefit of others) and for the production of a fully functional and just society.

Ethics has, in the past, seemed to not be amenable to the scientific method, I believe that this is gradually changing: we must live sustainably or suffer the consequences that science has made plain; we must share the limited resources of our planet because scientific investigation has shown that we have reached the limits of the Earth's carrying capacity and we, humanity and other life forms, are "all in the same boat". So science is now providing justification for ethical living.

This page is my personal views, although I do refer to other views. I wonder why few other individuals write pages like this. Most such pages seem to be written for universities or other organisations.

How should we live our lives?

Unethical behaviour
A trivial case of unethical behaviour: the train was crowded, the woman could easily have placed her bag on the floor or luggage rack, but chose to deprive someone else of a seat.

If you can do someone else a favour at very little cost to yourself, why would you not?

Unethical behaviour 2
Parking in the main street of Clare is not over-abundant. Using big 4WDs (SUVs) such as this for on-road driving is of questionable ethics at the best of times, using two parking spaces when the driver could easily have parked in one is doubly unethical.

The URL was photographed on the other side of the vehicle. (Any advertising is good advertising?)

Can we do any better than to try to live such a life that when we die, honest, intelligent, open minded people will be able to say, "the world is a little better place for his having lived"? Most of us will make a very small impact in our lifetimes, but all of us can try to make our impact a positive one.

Harry Messel (in 2009 an 86-year-old scientist) said that he "aimed to make the Earth a better place – and failed miserably". But it is probable that the world is a better place for his having lived – if he did more good than harm, while the world might not be a better place in his old age than it was in his youth, his influence would have been toward improvement. Most of us can do no more than that.

Edmund Burke said "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." There will always be those who will try to profit at the expense of others; their methods may or may not be legal, but they will, by definition, be immoral.

It is necessary then, that we must not be satisfied with living neutral lives, neither good nor bad; we must aim at living good lives if the world is to become no worse than it is. To live a neutral life will not provide a 'counter force' to those who are doing harm for selfish reasons.

The section on this page, How do we define good?, discusses several methods that we can use to decide which actions are ethical and which are unethical.

The mentor looking over your shoulder

How can we do our best? Think, when you make a decision, that you have a respected mentor looking over your shoulder. The mentor could be someone alive or dead, male or female, but he/she must be someone for whom you have (or had) great respect. Think what that person would feel about whatever you are considering doing: would he approve, or would you be ashamed to have your mentor know what you are contemplating?


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines altruism as:
  1. Unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others;
  2. Behaviour by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.
Most people who consider ethics for a time will conclude that at least some degree of altruism must be a part of any ethical life-style.

I will not take the subject further here than to ask the reader to consider the Internet and in particular Wikipedia from the point of view of altruism. In an age that is at least as dominated by selfish greed as any other (consider the economic collapse that was caused by the short-sighted avarice of the powerful corporate executives who largely run the early twenty-first century world), Wikipedia is a monument to altruism. Thousands of people around the world have contributed to this store of knowledge and wisdom and the great majority of them have received nothing in return, not even an acknowledgement for their work.

Beyond Wikipedia there are many Internet sights that provide information, free of charge, to the people of the world. If you want a recipe for anything, look it up on the Net!

Perhaps the Internet is dominated by sites that are designed to make money for someone, but for those who look there is a commendable amount of generosity to be seen and enjoyed there too.

I have written another page on this site on the subject of Selfishness or altruism; also see Contribution and Good and bad people.

The Golden Rule


No one rule is sufficient

While the Golden Rule is a good start toward deciding whether an action is ethical, it is not usable in all cases. In some cases we should ask What if everybody did that? In other cases we need to refer to utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number), and in yet others we should consider Kantian 'respect for individuals as an end in themselves'.

In the end, as you might expect, ethics cannot be 'boiled down' to one or a few simple rules; all aspects of a question must be considered.

All great religions have a variation of The Golden Rule: "In everything, do to others what you would like them to do to you" (Matthew 7:12) or its negative form: "Do not do to others what you would not like done to yourselves". For example Judaism has in the Talmud: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. That is the law: all the rest is commentary."

From Encyclopaedia Britannica on The Golden Rule: "Its negative form is to be found ... in the writings of the two great Jewish scholars Hillel (1st century BC) and Philo of Alexandria (1st centuries BC and AD), and in the Analects of Confucius (6th and 5th centuries BC). It also appears in one form or another in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Seneca."

Socrates is recorded as saying "I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the World". Much of Socrates teaching was about ethics, looking for the greater good and how to achieve it; he gave much thought to the citizen's duty toward the state. This statement seems to imply that he felt an obligation to the world as a whole, not just to his own state; remarkable for a man of Socrates' time, even in the twenty-first century most people have far narrower outlooks. In this present age, where Mankind has a profound impact on the global environment and the majority seem not to give much consideration to the future of Mankind, I think we need to look even further. We need to think of ourselves as being citizens of the biosphere; that is, the zone on or near the surface of the Earth that contains all known life. It follows, I believe, that we should apply the Golden Rule, not just to our fellow humans, but to the biosphere. I will call this the Greater Golden Rule.

As a very simple example, the Golden Rule would forbid us dumping our rubbish over the fence into our neighbour's yard. The Greater Golden Rule forbids us dumping our waste gasses into the atmosphere if that dumping will do harm to the biosphere.

I believe that the Greater Golden Rule comes close to defining what ethics is all about. To break it, even with some 'justifying' greater good in mind, is risky; in the case of a state using torture – to require that employees break the Golden Rule, in such a terrible and systematic way, would be criminal.

What would 'a better world' look like?

Just a few of the features of a better world:
  1. There would be justice for disadvantaged people;
  2. Human rights would be respected;
  3. Animal rights would be properly recognised;
  4. The rights and needs of future generations would be fairly considered;
  5. The health of the biosphere would be valued and fairly considered;
  6. The power that comes from wealth would be strictly limited;
  7. The power of corporations would be strictly limited;
  8. Power and wealth would be spread more equitably;
  9. Politicians would be expected to tell the truth and behave honestly and be held to account by a responsible media when they did not;
  10. Mass media would aim at honesty and providing information rather than sensationalism and misinformation that suited their editors and financiers;
  11. There would be much less delusion (such as religious beliefs); decisions would be based on logic and ethical principles, not on things written hundreds of years ago by people who had no knowledge of science or of the problems of the modern world.

This section added

The rights and needs of future generations

One of the greatest ethical failings of humanity at the time of writing is the almost total neglect of the rights and needs of future humans and non human species. I have recognised this for many years, but for some reason have not thought to state it, as such, in a specific section on this page or any other of my pages until now.


A curious omission

If there could be one theme that runs through most of my pages it is exactly the subject of this section - our responsibility to those, human and others, who will come after us. Yet this seems to be the first section I have written specifically on that point.
We recognise that people (and to an inadequate extent animals) living at present have rights and needs that should be respected, but we behave as though those who will live in the future don't matter.

This point was brought to my attention strongly when I read an article in Psyche a few days ago. The author of that article, Roman Krznaric, wrote "Humankind has colonised the future. We treat it like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste – as if nobody will be there."

My pages on wind power, climate change and related problems, what can (and should) we be doing to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, threatened disasters compared, the pros and cons of electricity generation methods, fuels compared and many others relate to the right of those who come after us to a planet that is not greatly degraded by our actions.

Does the end justify the means?

Can immoral actions ever be justified as a means to a greater good?

I will argue that it is rarely acceptable to attempt to bring about a good long-term outcome by means that are bad. Too often we do not achieve our long-term outcome; then all we have to show is our immoral action in making the attempt.

This is not so simple as it might at first site seem. Taxing the rich is the means of achieving the end of helping the poor. Taxing the rich would be undesirable if we did not, by doing so, produce a greater good by something such as helping the poor. Here the means, while perhaps being undesirable in itself, is plainly seen as the first step toward producing a greater good. The world is not black and white, we must often compromise; but we must take great care in doing so.

The USA dropped two million tonnes of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam war. Their aim may have been, at least in part, to bring democracy to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but they lost the war. So the means – the bombing, a terrible act – certainly was not justified by the end, because the desired end was not achieved.

The Nazis of Germany had a vision of a great future when they started World War Two; they achieved nothing but death and destruction. The Coalition of the USA, the UK and Australia at least professed achieving some greater good when they invaded Iraq in 2003; as far as can be seen in later years they achieved nothing good, but did a great deal of harm, including causing the deaths of tens of thousands or Iraqi civilians and the displacement of millions of others.

Is lying sometimes justified?

On a more personal level consider the question of whether it is ever justified to lie, or to break your promise. If you believe that, in a particular case, more harm will be done by telling the truth than by lying, should you lie? If you have promised something and later you realise that if you are to keep your promise you must do harm in some other way, then are you justified in breaking your promise?

As an example of the former, suppose that a young girl asks you if you think she is beautiful (you know she is not), do you lie because it will make her feel good? As an example of the latter, suppose you promise to do something for someone; you later realise that if you are to keep your promise it will mean that your family will suffer some loss; should you break your promise?

If your reputation suffers because you have lied, how difficult will it be to regain people's trust?

Also see Honesty, elsewhere.

Can torture be justified in some cases?

(The use of torture in general is also discussed on this page.)

Those who would have Australia adopt the use of torture say that its use would be justified in those cases where a smaller wrong (the use of torture) results in a larger good (for example, the saving of lives threatened by terrorists); that is, they claim that the means would be justified by the end. The greatest fault in this argument is that the wrong is certainly carried out, the suspect is tortured, but then the larger good may never be achieved.

These people typically give as an example the situation where many lives have been threatened by a terrorist group, one of the terrorists is in custody and may have information that could save innocent lives. There are several ways in which this could go wrong, the 'terrorist' may be tortured and no lives saved.

  • The information might be obtained, but the lives not saved for one of a number of reasons:
    • The attempt comes too late;
    • The rescue attempt is bungled;
    • The other terrorists kill their hostages or set off their bomb;
  • The suspect might not have the information needed to save the lives;
  • There may be no lives at risk; the whole thing may be a hoax;
  • The suspect may not be a terrorist at all, but has been falsely accused, or is mentally deranged;
Another reason that torture used against a terrorist may be wrong is that a person who a particular state considers to be a terrorist might well be justly considered a freedom fighter by those with a different point of view.


Ethics is about interaction between the self and the environment: treating other beings fairly. In most cases dishonesty is incompatible with fair treatment of your fellow beings, but as in most ethical questions sometimes we must commit some smaller wrong in order to avoid a larger; as a general rule honesty is the best course both from the personal point of view and the ethical point of view, but there are some few exceptions.

One thing that must be considered here is the question of your credibility – if you are dishonest people will remember that and when you say something in the future people will not know whether they can believe it. This is not only bad for you, it diminishes your friends and family because we are defined not only by ourselves, but by those around us.

A society cannot function at its best if we cannot trust each other.

On the Australian ABC TV current affairs show Four Corners, 7th June 2010, mining billionaire Clive Palmer said "I'm sure I can get any of my employees to say what I want to say [sic] if I pay their salary." I find it difficult to imagine how expecting one's employees to lie on demand can ever be morally justified and would hope that many of Palmer's employees would not lie just because he asked them to. It seems to me that here Mr Palmer was judging his employees by his own low standards of ethics.

Also see Is lying sometimes justified?.



This is a huge subject. I will only touch on it here.

In an ethical society a person's freedom should only be limited in so far as the actions of that person impacts on other sentient beings.

The view from near the top of Saint Mary Peak
View from St Mary's; yacca
This photo was taken from the old path to the Peak. It was bypassed around 1990.

Should we be bound by the superstitious beliefs of others?

Many Muslims think it is sinful for a woman to dress immodestly and to eat pork. Jews believe it is sinful to work on the Sabbath and to eat pork. Some Australian Aborigines (First Nations people if you prefer) seem to believe that to go to certain areas will offend the spirits.

Some Christians think that our lives are given to us by God and only God has the right to take our lives. In Australia these people are attempting to force all Australians to live by their beliefs. If these people wish to die miserably, in pain and without dignity, they have a right to do so, but they have no right to stop me from dying when I choose to.

All these beliefs are baseless and delusional. How much should we feel bound to curtail our freedoms due to the delusions of others?

Many of our actions do impact on others. Flying results in the release of large amounts of greenhouse gasses and greenhouse gasses impact all life on earth. Driving cars results in the release of greenhouse CO2. Should our freedom to fly and drive be limited?

Freedom to climb

In Australia it has been made illegal to climb Uluru (Eyre's Rock). The primary justification for this is that it is against the wishes of the traditional owners who say they believe that climbing the rock will offend the spirits. (A more practical and justifiable reason for not allowing the climbing is that there are no toilets on top and urinating and dedicating on the rock will contaminate the waterholes at the base.)

I have written a page on the philosophical point of land ownership (can anyone be justified in claiming to own land?) and particularly in regard to 'traditional owners' elsewhere on this site.

Freedom to climb Saint Mary Peak

In places it has been written that "the traditional owners of the Flinders Ranges would prefer that visitors do not climb Saint Mary Peak", the highest mountain in the southern half of the state of South Australia. I have not been able to find any more information on this 'preference' other than an unsubstantiated statement that "St Mary Peak is central to the Adnyamathanha creation story". I have read elsewhere that the Wilpena Pound Range is a part of the traditional owners' mythology, but not that the peak itself had any special significance.

I don't know anything about the motivation for this opposition, how it is justified, how many people were involved in deciding to oppose climbing, whether the decision was unanimous or contested, nor who exactly was involved in making the decision. If the 'preference' for people to not climb was seriously based surely information on these points should be available.

I can only think that whatever justification there is for the 'preference' was to avoid the offending of spirits.

Of course there is not the slightest evidence that these spirits, or for that matter any god or gods, exist. To believe in the supernatural is to suffer from delusions. Religious beliefs have probably lead to greater crimes and denial of freedoms than anything else in human history (and probably well before human history too); consider the many crimes committed by the people of the Bible as a few examples.

It has been suggested that I should respect the beliefs of the 'traditional owners' and refrain from climbing Saint Mary Peak.

At the time of writing Muslim Palestinians and Israeli Jews were killing each other in Israel and Gaza while Catholics and Protestants were looking like going back to killing each other in Northern Ireland. Even though they believe in the same imaginary God their differing myths seem to make it impossible for them to live together in peace. The fundamentalist Muslim Taliban, who opposed women's rights, the arts and many freedoms were making advances in Afghanistan and a woman who had been accused of witchcraft had been tortured and killed in Papua New Guinea.

Catholic Christians have killed thousands of Protestant Christians (and vice-versa) in the past, Shiite Muslims kill Sunni Muslims (and vice-versa) periodically, Hindus kill Muslims (and vice-versa) in India and Buddhists burn the villages of Muslims in Burma; all over the beliefs that they hold in the complete lack of supporting evidence.

All these religious and superstitious (religion is a synonym for superstition) are delusional; it is as simple as that.

Australia's Prime Ministers Abbott and Morrison were public in their strongly held Christian beliefs (delusions) and they did their best to damage the world I love by trying to get as much fossil fuels burned as possible.

No, I have little respect for delusional beliefs.

My wife and I climbed Saint Mary's Peak one easter about 1976. We were either the first for the day to reach the top or close to it; on our way down we counted about 250 people on their way up. I believe that the view from the top is one of the most beautiful views I've ever seen. For a few people to deny many people the freedom to contemplate this view - on grounds of superstition - is, in my opinion, unsupportable, sad and an abuse of power.

Of course even hiking to the top of the Peak does have some impact, but if the alternative is going for a drive, or to do a sight-seeing flight, then that impact will be much greater. If we want to minimise our impact on the Flinders Ranges we should not visit them at all, but walking will always have much less impact than driving or flying.

Should the enjoyment of a great many people be curtailed because of the delusions of a few? I would say definitely not.

Freedom to die

"The only part of the conduct of any one, for which [a citizen] is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty
The freedom to die at a time and by a method of one's own choosing should be a fundamental human right. I have written on euthanasia, assisted suicide and suicide and on suicide as a rational decision elsewhere on these pages. The obtaining of that freedom will be a milestone in the development of human society.

Freedom to fly a drone

In Australia the laws on when, where and how drones can be flown are unnecessarily restrictive. I have written more about this on another page on this site.

Should torture ever be used?

Recently (as of the time of writing, June 2005) we, in Australia, have heard suggestions that our government should consider legalising torture under special circumstances.

I believe that would be a great mistake, for the following reasons:

  • It goes against two great moral rules:
  • The victim may be innocent of the crime of which he is suspected;
  • The victim's crime may not be a crime when looked at from a point of view different to that of the torturer: "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter";
  • Almost everyone would agree that the intentional inflicting of pain on any animal is, in itself, bad. Torture is a wrong that can only be justified by bringing about a greater good. But very often, when people do bad with the aim of producing a greater good, the end that is actually achieved does not justify the means employed;
  • It would be quite immoral to require an employee to use torture;
  • If the government of a country uses torture, then the opponents of that government will feel more justified in using cruel and immoral methods;
  • It will cause fear and dread of government and authority by the citizens. In a democracy the citizens should respect police forces, not fear or dread them;
  • Those who authorise the use of torture in 'special' cases will be tempted to also authorise it in other cases;
  • Those who do the torturing will have a hard time living with their consciences; this will be a burden to them in later life. They will also be despised by the general populace if what they have done becomes known;
  • The torturers will become brutalised by their work;
Torture is also discussed under Does the end justify the means?

How do we define good?


No one rule fits all cases

In philosophical ethics the aim of maximising favourable outcomes and minimising unfavourable outcomes is called utilitarianism. There are cases when it can lead to injustices. For example if a large majority were to enslave a small minority it might be claimed that the total of the advantage to the majority would be greater than the disadvantage to the minority, but most people would not accept that justice was served.
Philosophers have filled books with attempts at answering this question. I will shortcut and simply suggest that in most cases good can be defined as that course which will lead to maximising favourable outcomes and minimising unfavourable outcomes. Sometimes it will be necessary to do some harm in order to achieve a greater good. For example, most would agree that it is acceptable to tax the rich so that we can help the poor.

When deciding on 'the good' it has often been thought sufficient to consider other people. With the harm that has been done to our environment in the recent past (for example damage to the ozone layer and the extinction of species caused by greenhouse warming) it has become clear that we must consider the whole of the part of the earth that supports life, the biosphere.

There are simple actions that would almost universally be considered good; for example, collecting rubbish from a roadside and disposing of it properly. Other actions, generally of a more complex nature, may be thought good in one age or in one society, and less good in another. Clearing scrub to produce open farmland was strongly encouraged in Australia in the nineteenth century with the result of widespread soil salinisation and other problems in the twentieth century. Introducing Old-World animals into Australia, to make Australia more like Europe, was once thought good; it has caused huge and irreparable harm to the Australian environment.

Confucius suggested that a gentleman (who he defined as a man who lives a moral life rather than a man of noble birth) would take as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover what will pay.

The Golden Rule, 'do to others what you would like them to do to you' is one way that you can decide on whether an action is ethical or not. Another is to consider 'what if everybody behaved that way?'

What if everybody behaved that way?

It may help to decide whether a particular behaviour is ethical by considering what would result if everybody adopted it. For example, if one person throws his rubbish out of his car window little harm is done, if everybody did it our roadsides would quickly become a mess.


Number of children

In a world that is grossly overpopulated it is irresponsible and unethical to have many children. Surely it must be obvious what would happen to world population "if everybody did that".

The per-capita greenhouse gas emissions for Australia is about 25 tonnes (CO2 equivalent) per year, so in a life time each person would be responsible for nearly 2000 tonnes.

I leave it to the individual to decide what is a responsible number of children, but I can't see any justification in having more than two.

In Australia some people drive big, heavy four-wheel-drives (4WDs, SUVs) because they know that anyone in a 2-tonne 4WD who collides with a 1-tonne compact car is likely to come out better off than the people in the little car. What if everybody did that? We'd all be driving around in tanks, no-one would be better off, and greenhouse gas emissions would go far higher. This is a behaviour that has a short-term advantage to a few, but is to the long-term disadvantage of all; and is therefore unethical.

This ethical point is also known as the tragedy of the commons, discussed elsewhere on this page. (No one rule is sufficient in all cases.)

This point is especially appropriate in this age of greenhouse warming/climate change. Consider your life-style and think what would happen to the world if everybody behaved like you do. If you live the life of a high-consumption Australian or USian, think how much worse the climate change problem would be if everyone in the world was responsible for producing as much carbon dioxide and for consuming as much petroleum as you.

The Australian government has tried to excuse Australia's very high production of greenhouse gasses on a number of occasions by saying that the total greenhouse gas produced by Australia is a very small percentage of the world's total. Australia produces about 1.5% of the world's total annual greenhouse gasses, but Australia has only about 0.3% of the world's population. So, using the rule, 'what if everybody behaved that way?', if every person in the world was responsible for the same amount of greenhouse gas production as the average Australian then the world's total would increase five fold – an absolute disaster! This ethical question is discussed in greater depth in my page on greenhouse and Australia.

The greenhouse/climate change problem has come about because people have not considered this moral question. No-one has bothered about the amount of CO2 that they are responsible for releasing because it is trivial in the big picture; but they don't go on to think that they are one of six billion people and they have a moral obligation to use no more than one six billionth of the earth's resources.

A number of Australians who work in the mining industry air-commute to their work. For example they might fly a couple of thousand kilometres from Perth to the NW of Western Australia every few weeks. Consider the amount of plane fuel used and greenhouse gasses produced. What if everybody did something similar? Perhaps these people, as individuals, don't have a choice; perhaps that is the only way they can get to and from that job; the fact remains that it is unethical because they are producing more than their share of CO2.

This section added 2015/08/16

Some thoughts on how to do the most good

This bit was first written when I was trying to put my thoughts together on what I could best do with my time. Then I decided that I could modify it to perhaps be of some use to others.

Ask yourself:

  • What can I do with my life that will serve the most useful purpose to society as a whole and to the planet?
  • What are the most important causes I can espouse?
  • Where is the greatest opportunity?
  • Where do I have some chance of having an impact?
A large factor is: what are your talents and resources?

For myself (as an example) I decided that the best I could do, under the circumstances, is to continue to try to dispel the myths about wind power and contrast it to the proven harm done by the coal industry. (Wind power can, to some extent, replace coal-fired electricity generation.) There is a great unjustified mistrust of wind power in Australia and insufficient recognition of how bad coal is. From experience it seems that there is no point in trying to change the minds of those who have an entrenched hatred of wind power, but I can work on the many who are unconvinced one way or the other.

Others will decide that they can do the most good in entirely other directions.

Philosopher Peter Singer wrote a book titled 'The most good you can do'. It leans toward a philanthropic approach: how you can achieve the most good with the money that you can spare or whether you can do more good by getting a highly paid job so that you can afford to give more. Singer is well known for his advocacy of animal rights and in particular the cruelty involved in modern factory farming. Singer's book is a good place to start, but I hope that you will also consider some of the points made in this section.

Some people will come to the conclusion that they can do the most good by getting involved in activism of one form or another especially if they have little money to spare.

What other good can you do?

  • Reduce your 'environmental footprint'
    • If you buy or build a house, aim at a small, energy efficient one;
    • Minimise the carbon emissions of your travel (walk, cycle, use public transport, buy a smaller more fuel-efficient or electric car, or just travel less);
    • Eat less meat;
    • Many more suggestions on another page;
  • If you have investments, change away from those that are unethical;
    • Get rid of investments in fossil fuel companies;
    • Take your savings out of banks that make unethical loans (in Australia for example, the big banks loan to fossil fuel companies and mining companies that will greatly damage the Great Barrier Reef;
  • Buy your electricity from responsible energy retailers, not those (like Origin, Energy Australia and AGL) that lobby politicians against the adoption of renewable energy;
  • Use social media to tell your friends what you are doing;
  • Spread awareness that the coal industry has no future (financially as well as environmentally;
I am a hopeless speaker; I can never think of the words I need as I need them, so I avoid public speaking, talking to politicians, etc.

How I have tried to do good:

  • Involvement in walks: the first for a solar-thermal power station, the second pressing the Australian government for serious action on climate change;
  • Involvement in removing rubbish from roadsides and working in the local wetlands;
  • Many of the pages on this site are my efforts to do good;

Teach ethics in schools

Children should not only be taught facts and how to use processes to achieve aims (such as arithmetic operations), but how to think effectively and critically. All children should be taught at least the basics of philosophy because philosophy is all about freeing one's thoughts and understanding the limitations of knowledge. And, in the context of this page, all children should be taught the basics of ethics: the philosophy of morality.

A period once a week for all students to study philosophy and ethics would be well justified and productive as well. Learning to think critically would make all learning more effective.

Failing a dedicated period for all students to study philosophy and ethics, many schools have a weekly session during which the children can receive religious instruction. Those children who do not associate themselves with any particular religion, or a religion for which no instructor is available, often are allowed to use this period for revision or personal study. This period could be used to study ethics, and the children could be given the choice of whether to study religion or ethics. Learning ethics (or philosophy or critical thinking) would be a much more productive use of the childrens' time than learning religion.

Ideally teachers trained in ethics would be used, but if they are not available then volunteers from the community might be able to be found.

Better government


Who am I to lecture on ethics?

Is it hubris? Do I consider myself an expert, or perhaps a good example of moral living? No. Ethics is simply a subject that I enjoy giving some thought to. On this page I am attempting to express some of the conclusions that I have reached.

More ramblings on Ethics in government

Other pages on my site that deal with ethics and governments are:
All of us can have an effect on our governments and we all have a responsibility to try to improve our governments. Those of us fortunate enough to be citizens of democracies can easily and safely put forward our opinions, those not so fortunate should still try to move their governments toward moral courses.

"Every nation has the government it deserves", Joseph LeMaistre.
Citizens of democracies have, I believe, a responsibility to keep a check on the actions of their governments. While the urging of one citizen will have little effect, it will have an effect.

Many citizens of democracies complain that the only say they have in the government of their country is to vote at election time. This is a pathetic excuse that lazy people use to justify their apathy. If they were sincere in their stated desire to modify the way their country is governed they could:

  1. Explain their concerns to their local member of parliament and urge him/her to act upon them;
  2. Contact the relevant minister and urge him to act;
  3. Contact the leader of the government;
  4. Write to newspapers explaining their point;
  5. Join a political party and take an active part in the democratic process;
  6. Run for parliament (congress, whatever) themselves;
  7. Produce an Internet site and place their concerns on it.
Hardenbergia violacea blossom
Governments have, it seems to me, always tended to think only of the short-term. This is notoriously so with democratic governments; they are always considering having to face the voters at the next election. All citizens, if they want to be good citizens, whether they are a part of a government or not, should try to press their government toward giving proper consideration to the long-term effects of their actions.

Governments, whether local, regional, federal or international (the UN), tend to place too much emphasis on economical matters while tending to neglect ethical matters. This is much the same thing as thinking short-term rather than thinking long-term. An immoral decision based on economical considerations might have short-term benefits, but will probably have long-term disadvantages.

Governments also tend to favour 'development' over conservation. Perhaps it is easier to produce a visible outcome; if a new industry is established in a town then the mayor can feel that this is something that he has done for the town. If, on the other hand, he was to protect remnant roadside vegetation, the result would be less obvious, although, in the very long term, perhaps more important. (Profits and income, though necessary, are transient; biodiversity, once lost, will take millions of years to recover.)

Ethics of climate change


All of the people all of the time

A society in which everybody behaved ethically all the time would function wonderfully well; but that is unrealistic. A society in which most people behave ethically most of the time functions acceptably well; that is what we have in most respects.

A society in which most people behave unethically most of the time will fail; that is what we have in regard to greenhouse/climate change, at least in the western world.

Ethics and wind power

Ethics in relation to opposition to wind power and renewable energy in general are touched on in my page Wind Energy Opposition. It particularly deals with exposing those who oppose the adoption of wind power in Australia for unethical reasons.
"In Australia, we know that water for irrigation is limited, and we are beginning to discuss how best to divide it up. Here's one way of doing it: let those with the biggest pumps take as much as they want, never mind what that leaves for others. Not fair? But then, why are we using exactly this method of dividing up a scarce resource right now – not with water, but with the atmosphere? Perhaps because we're not used to thinking of the atmosphere as a scarce resource, we don't see how unfairly we are behaving."
Philosopher Peter Singer writing in The Age, 3rd April 2008

Society's refusal to greatly and urgently reduce the rate of production of greenhouse gasses is going to condemn future generations to living on a badly damaged planet.

Compared to the rest of the world, especially the poorer nations, most Australians and people of the USA produce far more than their fair share of greenhouse carbon dioxide when the capacity of the world to handle this is overloaded. How can politicians in Australia and the USA ignore any ethical responsibility to reduce our shockingly high per-capita emissions?

Any calculation of the amount of carbon dioxide that the world can sustainably handle shows that, per person on earth, it is a small fraction of the amounts produced by the people of Australia and the USA.

In most cases it would be easy for these people to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas that they produce; buy smaller cars, use public transport more and their private cars less, etc.

We should be replacing fossil fuels with renewables.
Turbine and message

Consuming more than your share when you know that all will suffer for your consumption in the long run is certainly unethical. The great majority of Australians and USians must be aware of the greenhouse/climate change problem. I think the answer is that these people simple do not think of it in these terms; they are just doing what those around them are doing, they cannot see the trees for the forest. The citizens of Australia and the USA need to be educated about greenhouse responsibilities, but their governments have little or no interest in lowering greenhouse emissions so will not invest anything significant in this education. (One of the major political parties in Australia, the Liberals are particularly lacking in ethical standards on this point.)

A sunset at Elysium, Clare Valley, South Australia

Tragedy of the Commons

The 'Tragedy of the Commons' refers to an ethical dilemma where the short-sighted selfishness of a few people can cause environmental destruction in spite of the good intentions and best endeavours of everyone else.

The term originates from the Commons, or common land, of Britain. Britain had land reserved for the use of all. Individuals could run a few stock on the commons or plant a small garden and grow some vegetables or fruit trees. The 'Tragedy' comes from the fact that, so long as everyone considered the needs of their neighbours and remembered that each had a responsibility to protect the commons as well as a right to use the commons all was well, but the good of all could be damaged by the greed of a few. If 90% of those who used the commons did so carefully and responsibly, the remaining 10% could still overstock the land and damage it. If the 90% reduced the numbers of their stock when they saw that overstocking was a problem, the 10% could increase the numbers of their stock, increase their profits and increase the damage done to the land.

This problem is covered by the question What if everybody behaved that way?, discussed elsewhere on this page.

This is exactly what we see with greenhouse/climate change. Instead of some people in a local community sharing some common land there is the global community sharing the atmosphere. When there were fewer people on the Earth and we all produced only a little greenhouse gas all was well, but when our numbers multiplied and some of us started producing far more greenhouse gasses than others climates started to change. But then people realised that if some tried to live within the limits of the capacities of the Earth's natural systems, but a few did not, the tragedy would continue.

The wealthy nations have done most of the damage. They have caused most of the gasses to be released into the atmosphere to cause the level of climate change that we are seeing in the early twenty-first century.

What we need is for an agreement between most nations (we cannot wait for an agreement between all nations) to somehow share the Earth's natural systems without excessive damage. Those nations that will not agree voluntarily will have to be induced to conform by pressure from the others.

What standard of ethics?

Should one try to maintain the highest standard of ethics when one sees much lower standards in others? Or should one be content to just maintain a little higher standard than that observed in others in one's society?

Edited 2021/05/17
I'll give an example. It is wrong to damage the environment more than one needs to; as mentioned above, it is impossible to live without doing some harm. The burning of fossil fuels is widely recognised as the main cause of climate change, ocean acidification, sea level rise and ocean warming. The air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels kills millions of people world wide each year. It follows, therefore, that we should, as individuals, try to minimise the greenhouse gasses that we are responsible for. Most of Australia's electricity (most of the world's electricity?) is generated by burning coal – one of the main causes of greenhouse gas production. If we want to minimise our own contributions what should we do?

  • Be aware of how much electricity we are using and always try to minimise it?
  • Not use any electricity from the grid? Generate our own by using solar panels;
  • Pay a little extra and buy ' green' electricity;
How much trouble should one go to in order to minimise one's electrical consumption? Many other people don't care at all, so should one be content to do a little better than the majority?

If one buys green electricity, should one go to the expense of buying 100% green electricity, when most other people don't buy any? Would buying 25% green electricity be enough?

I'd suggest that one does what one reasonably can; what one can afford to; that one maintains the highest standard of morals that one can reasonably achieve.

That other people have low ethical standards should not effect one's own ethical standards. Bad behaviour in others does not excuse bad behaviour in oneself. On the other hand to live shivering in the cold rather than switching on a heater, because one believes it unethical to consume electricity and so add to the greenhouse problem, I would suggest is excessive. (I think Buddha said something to the effect of moderation in all things, walk the middle path?)

Plato held, in The Republic, that to be moral is in one's own interest, that even from a selfish perspective morality is the best course.

This section added

The consequences of our actions

I have believed for many years that we should always consider the consequences of whatever we do. Humans are intelligent animals, although we do have to make an effort to use that intelligence. It seems that many have got into the habit of just drifting through life as far as the consequences of our actions are concerned. Some of us, apparently many of us, don't care what fall out there is from what we do.

It is a great pity for those who do care, that so many don't. We all have to suffer jointly many of the consequences of people's actions as individuals. In particular, the future of all life on Earth is impacted by the emissions that each and every one of us is responsible for individually.

We have choices in what we do all the time. For the sake of our shared world we should all consider how we make those choices, not just selfishly, but at least with a thought to altruism.

Consumption and the cars we drive

4WDs not needed
Six big and heavy 4-wheel-drives and one small fuel-efficient car in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. Are the gas-guzzlers needed? Our little car (the Jazz on the left) weighs about half as much and handles the dirt roads with ease and it is quite capable of towing a tent trailer or small camper.
Many people would consider ownership of a car of their choice a right, but is it? Our cars are one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gasses. If every person in the third world owned a car and ran it as much as we in the West run our cars then global warming would quickly be increased to intolerable levels.

So, if running a car is something that is unsustainable if everyone in the world were to do it, can we justify our cars? I suspect not.

Of course the size of the vehicle and its fuel consumption is also an important factor. A large four-wheel-drive (4WD, SUV) car could easily consume twice the fuel of a small car. (USians call 4WDs SUVs – sports utility vehicles – sometimes BinLadenmobiles.)

I use a car. I can't see any reasonable alterative. But I try to minimise my car use, and try to avoid running a car that is bigger than I need. It's important to think about your consumption and your contribution to global pollution; if you think about it perhaps you will become a part of the solution rather than being just another part of the problem.

An interesting page with an American point of view on SUVs is at Santa Clara University.

The graph below indicates that if we can share the use of small cars rather than using a big 4WD on our own we might reduce our greenhouse impact about nine fold. It also shows that sharing our vehicles, whether big 4WDs or minis, can greatly improve their sustainability, and therefore their ethical justifiability. (In the graph I have, for simplicity, considered the driver to be a passenger.)

Kg CO2 per passenger Km for various vehicles and numbers of passengers
Graph – Kg of CO2 per passenger Km
This graph shows how the amount of CO2 released from a car, when figured on a per passenger basis, varies depending on the size of the vehicle and the number of passengers.

The tall purple bar in the back row indicates that in a big 4WD (SUV) with only one passenger about 0.4kg (400 grams) of CO2 is released every kilometre travelled.

The short blue bar in the front row shows that at the other end of the scale, in a mini car with four passengers, only 0.045kg (45 grams) of CO2 is released every passenger-kilometre travelled.

This section added 2016/09/11

Car emissions compared

We all have an ethical obligation to try to minimise our environmental impact on the Earth. One of our greatest impacts is the greenhouse gasses that we are responsible for releasing into the atmosphere.


The ultimate

Of course the ideal car would not emit any greenhouse gasses. An electric car using electricity generated renewably is such a vehicle.
As of September 2016 my wife and I had driven a Honda Jazz for about 11 years. Its average fuel consumption was about 5.6 litres per hundred kilometres.

I thought it would be interesting to make some calculations on the total amount of fuel it had consumed, total CO2 emitted, and compare this with more common and higher consumption cars.

As of September 2016 our Jazz had travelled 170,000 kilometres; the calculations below are based on that and a fuel price of Aust$1.20/Litre.

CarFuel consumption
Fuel consumed
CostCost difference CO2 emitted
Emission difference
Medium car8.013,600$16,320$4,89634.010.2
Large car10.017,000$20,400$8,97642.518.7
Gas guzzler14.023,800$28,560$17,13659.535.7

The cost difference column shows how much more a larger car would have cost us for fuel than the Jazz. (This does not consider the higher capital cost of a larger vehicle, lost income from money invested, and higher maintenance costs of larger vehicles. On top of that a larger car would have required more garage space.) The Emissions difference column show how much more carbon dioxide would have been emitted had we run larger cars instead of our Jazz.

Another important factor is the convenience of easier parking for a smaller car.

Responsibility of wealth

Some people are more wealthy than others. Those who are wealthy may have worked hard to produce that wealth in the past; some may have been given their wealth by their parents. Most people who live in Western countries are wealthy compared to most residents of the Third World.


Criminal use of wealth

This section added
The wealthiest person in Australia, Gina Rinehart, uses some of her great wealth, much of which has come from mining of coal, to try to convince people that climate change is not happening or has nothing to do with human activities.

She could do great good (for example she could give $5,000 to each of the million poorest Australians and still be the most wealthy person in Australia), but instead she choses to do harm to our shared planet.

She is just one of a great many wealthy and/or powerful people who misuse their wealth; Rupert Murdoch and Clive Palmer are conspicuous others.

Wealth brings with it advantages. Wealthy people have options, the very poor often have few choices on how they can live their lives. Wealth brings with it power, poverty equals powerlessness.

Consider my life today compared with an African peasant farmer; for the sake of the exercise think of the two of us as if we had no past. I, who am retired and financially comfortable, get out of bed and write a bit on my computer before having breakfast and going out to water some trees that I have planted along some roadsides. All things that I have chosen to do.

The African peasant probably gets out of bed and is straight into work that must be done, work that he/she has no choices in. His breakfast is much more frugal than mine, his health is more precarious, he could not afford to buy a computer even if he wanted one, he probably can not be at all confident that he will be able to feed himself, or his family, in the year to come.

Why should I be so well off and the African not? Is this situation just?

I suggest that those of us who are wealthy have a responsibility to share with those who are poor. If you have a much larger house than you need, if you have more bathrooms than you can use, if you regularly have holidays on luxury liners or in five star hotels, look to your ethics.

Animals have even less power than African peasants. Those of us who have options certainly have responsibilities to animals.

Small capitalism

I am retired now (now being March 2004), have been for six months. That means that I am living off my superannuation and investments. I am consuming products that are produced by other people, while not, myself, producing much.

I'm still physically reasonably fit, but at the age of 58 I believe I'd have a hard time finding paid employment if I tried.

Is consuming the products of other people's labour, while producing little oneself, ethical? I suspect that Carl Marx would have had something to say about it.

(In the 17 subsequent years I have done voluntary work and other things so as to continue to contribute to society and the world.)

Anzac Cove rubbish
Photo thanks to
Seventeen thousand visitors left the supposedly revered Anzac Cove site strewn with rubbish after the 90th anniversary dawn service on Anzac Day 2005.

Rubbishing Gallipoli

From the point of view of ethics

It has become a tradition of Anzac Day – Australia's commemoration of what is held to be a major historical marker in the making of the Australian nation – for a large number of Australian and New Zealanders to gather at Anzac Cove on Gallipoli for the dawn service. The photo on the right shows how much rubbish the visitors leave behind them.

Dumping your rubbish for someone else to pick up is not the most unethical act you can do, but it is unethical, and I suspect it demonstrates an unethical mind-set. It is a question of self versus society. The person who dumps his rubbish on the ground is showing that he/she believes that his convenience, in getting rid of his rubbish quickly and easily, is more important than the consequences of his actions on others. He apparently believes that he is more important than the place he is damaging or that he is more important than those who must come later and clean up. This same concept is shown by Australian Coalition governments by their insistence on the right to dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to the detriment of the whole world.

In the Anzac Cove case, this is harder to understand since one would think that the place would have to have some 'spiritual' significance for these people who go to the trouble of visiting it. Yet they have no hesitation in rubbishing it? Do they just not think about the contradiction?

A 'simple' matter: proper disposal of rubbish

I have used the collection and proper disposal of roadside rubbish as an example of an act that almost everyone would agree was ethical. However, when one tries to define 'proper disposal' one finds that the task is not so simple.
  1. Let the local council take it to their landfill? Is landfill an ethical way of disposal of rubbish?
  2. Is the question of what the local council does to the rubbish your ethical problem?
  3. Separate the organics and compost them yourself? Recycle what you can. What to do with the remainder?
  4. If you don't have the space to compost the organics, should you burn them? What of the smoke?
Perhaps you do the best you can in the time you have and with the facilities that are available to you.

Good and bad people

Degrees of misdeeds

I can't resist including one of my favourite quotes here: "Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things – that takes religion."
Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate
Are there some people who are entirely good and others who are entirely bad? It seems unlikely. There are certainly some whose bad deeds have come to dominate our impression of them as they are recorded in history; for example Adolf Hitler. There are others whose historical image has changed over time. Moa Tsi Tung, for example, used to be thought of as something of a benign father figure of China during the period of its modernising, but over the past few decades, as more records of his actions come to light, he seems to have been exposed as a selfish and unfeeling dictator who did much more harm to China and the Chinese people than any good he did.

In the case of my country, Australia, the period from 1996 to 2007 was dominated by the policies of Prime Minister John Howard. He presumably was motivated by a desire to 'improve' Australia, but he aligned it with the USA in that country's wars of global domination and he was George W. Bush's greatest ally in slowing the world's response to the massive climate change problem. He dominated the parliamentary Liberal Party to the point where very few other members seemed to have found the will or courage to speak out against him. Yet while his Prime Ministership was largely negative for Australia, and certainly for the world, I think it might be simplistic to just say that he was a 'bad' man.

'White collar' criminals such as embezzlers seem to have traditionally been thought less 'bad' than violent criminals, although one wonders which have caused the most harm. Surely the seriousness of a crime, or unethical act, should be measured by the amount of harm done.

Then shouldn't we measure the harm done by greedy corporate bosses according to the amount of financial harm that their rapaciousness does to other people? For example, a public company chief executive officer who takes two million dollars a year more than he needs from the profits of that public company can be thought of as taking a thousand dollars a year from each of a thousand employees of that company and a thousand dollars a year from each of a thousand small investors in that company. This surely causes unnecessary hardship to a great many people; unnecessary because research has shown that increasing income, beyond the minimum level required to sustain a comfortable lifestyle, produce very little, if any, increased happiness. The greed of the corporate CEO, while doing harm to many, hardly improves the lot of the CEO himself!

Considered this way, are avaricious corporate CEOs among the worst, most unethical, people in the modern world?

This paragraph added 2017/03/26
On the subject of the worst criminals I need to mention a point I have put forward on another page: that dishonestly supporting the retention of the fossil fuel industry and opposing the introduction of renewable energy has to be the greatest crime in the history of humanity. It then follows that those in positions of power who commit this crime would have to be the greatest criminals in the history of humanity. In early 2017 there two who are prominent in this group are Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Donald Trump.

A debit or credit balance of good deeds

When I was in my twenties I felt concern that a number of people had done more for me than I was able to do for them. I had been given accommodation by some and was not in a position to do anything in return. I had been given help with broken-down or bogged vehicles and could not return the favour. I suspect that young people in particular tend to have more done for them than they are able to do in return.

As I got older I developed the idea that while I could not return the favour to the individuals who helped me – in many cases I had lost track of them – I could help other people and at least 'balance my ledger' in that I would do good for at least as many people as had done good to me.

I do not recall ever discussing this principle with anyone until a visit to some long-time friends in England in 2004. They took my family and me to an expensive dinner and refused to allow me to pay any part of the cost. When they realised that I did not feel comfortable that they had paid the whole cost of the restaurant meal, they explained that they had many favours done for them in the past and they felt that by doing favours to us they were moving a step toward balancing their 'good deed ledger'.

Balancing your budget with the environment

This principle can be taken a step further. We all have had a great deal of pleasure from the environment; think of all the beautiful days that you have enjoyed in wonderful places, the scent of flowers, the enjoyment of lovely views, experiences with wild animals, and so on. We are indebted to our environment. We can go some way toward balancing this ledger too, if we do favours for the environment: plant trees where there are not enough trees, control weeds, work to improve a local park, clean up rubbish, help to increase biodiversity, or we can get involved in any of a number of campaigns to slow climate change, stop coal mining, etcetera.

Anger and hatred

Everyone feels anger sometimes when another person does something cruel or morally wrong to them. I can well believe that many people feel, probably rightly, that they have had a bad deal out of life; they therefore become angry with society.

There are two things that we must be careful of here. First, it is certainly wrong to punish some people for wrongs done by others, whether or not those others happen to belong to the same group as those who did wrong. Second, our anger can harm ourselves.

Anger and hatred do at least as much harm to the person who feels them as they do to the person to whom they are directed. It is impossible to be happy at the same time as being angry and hating. We all want to be happy.

I believe that it is a valid aim in life to be happy, so long as that happiness is based on a solid foundation. One cannot meaningfully be happy, for example, by taking drugs. Certainly one will never become happy by collecting material possessions. We may feel some satisfaction if we obtain revenge, but it is not the way to happiness.

So, do we allow people to do bad things to us and 'get away with it'? No, I do not advocate that, sometimes we should seek justice; but we must not allow our own anger and hatred to harm us. Overcome them, be happy! Consider too, that the person who has harmed you may well learn in later life that he has done wrong and, in so doing, has harmed himself; what sort of long term happiness can anyone obtain by harming others?

People change. Many go through periods in their lives when they behave badly; most eventually move out of that error. If possible, we should help them see that it is an error rather than become angry or hate them. Easy to say, hard to do!

The importance of doubt



Philosophers have argued about the problem of knowledge for centuries. As in so many things, the philosophers have not come to a single, agreed conclusion. I suggest dropping the concept of knowledge in the philosophical sense. Knowledge can never be certain; there must always be doubt.

In fact, perhaps the acceptance that absolute knowledge is impossible is the essence of science?


Examination of one's beliefs

I believe that it is of fundamental importance that if we want to have any confidence in our beliefs we should continually examine them and make sure, as far as we can, that they accord with the available evidence.
Descartes with his "I think, therefore I am" showed how very little we can be sure of. Great harm has been done by those who believed that they knew the truth; consider the wars of religion and the slaughter of 'heretics' over the ages.

I don't remember who the writer was, but I remember reading an excellent analogy. For every theory that may be true or may be false (as an example think of organic evolution) imagine a horizontal wire attached to a wall. On the wire there is a bead representing evolution. At each end of the wire is a cup. If the bead is pushed along the wire until it falls into the left cup this indicates that you totally disbelieve that organic evolution happens. If the bead is in the right cup then it indicates that you have absolutely no doubt that organic evolution is a fact. We must all endeavour to keep all our beads on the wires and not in the cups.

We must never believe that we 'know' what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. We certainly should pursue this knowledge, but we should always retain a sufficiently open mind to admit that we could be wrong. One of the greatest of the many evils that have come from religion is the unquestioning belief in being correct while others are in error.

Flag burning

Why should a national flag be 'sacred'? Why should the symbol of a nation, the nation itself, or its government, be above criticism?

Looking at the balance of good and bad; some people will be offended if they see their national flag burned, but perhaps more good will be achieved by encouraging them to think about whether their nationalism can really be justified. My page on Patriotism discusses similar concepts. Patriotism is very close to nationalism. We should be thinking of the Earth, rather than an individual nation, as our home; nationalism/patriotism was probably never a good idea.

Nationalism implies either "The government of my country is always right in its dealings with other nations" or "I will always support my country, whether it is right or wrong". The first assertion is plainly factually wrong, the second is morally wrong; both are dangerous.

Some people claim that Australians (or whatever your national group is) fought in the First and Second World Wars (or whatever your great conflicts were) for the flag. Surely they did not. Surely they fought for principals such as freedom from tyranny and the right to pursue happiness in their own ways. I would hope they did anyway.

Governments have an interest in the patriotism or nationalism of citizens. They can use it to obtain the support of their citizens against some real or imagined outside threat (as the US and Australian government have done very effectively in the fake 'war against terror'). I see no ethical argument in favour of nationalism or the sanctity of a national flag.

"Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger."

Herman Goering, Nazi Reichsmarshall and commander of the Luftwaffe, speaking at the Nuremberg trials.


My page on killing and war is relevant here.

A sign of the times?

According to an annual UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] survey of college freshmen [first year students], "being very well off financially" was "very important or essential" to 44 percent of students in 1965, but that number has steadily increased, reaching 75 percent of students in 2000. It's curious to note that while prosperity has significantly increased during the past fifty years, self-reported levels of happiness have stayed the same. The data are dramatic. For example, while inflation-adjusted personal income has almost tripled since 1956, the percentage of Americans reporting that they are "very happy" has remained steady at 30 percent during the past 45 years.

Extract from 'Do The Right Thing', by Thomas G. Plante

I have written on another page about "How much income is enough?" and "More money does not necessarily lead to more happiness."

Too small to make a difference?


Going-it alone?

If the Australian government did make an honest attempt to reduce greenhouse pollution it would not be 'going-it alone' at all. It would be joining a long list of countries, mostly European, that have been seriously trying to become more ethical and more sustainable.
The argument has often been made that there is no point in Australia 'going-it alone' and reducing its greenhouse gas pollution because Australia is 'too small to make a difference'. The fact that per-capita Australia's contribution to global greenhouse gas production is five time the average is either unknown, or more likely, ignored by those who use this argument.

I have dealt with this argument in greater depth in The great fallacy. As it relates to ethics, it shows shallow thinking.

Everyone on earth has a responsibility to use no more than a fair share of the planet's resources, including its capacity to take care of wastes.

The 'too small to make a difference' argument, as it relates to Australia and greenhouse gasses, is shown to be false if one considers the 'What if everybody behaved that way?' test.

This section added


Since the fall of communism the world has been left with capitalism effectively running the economies of most countries and even of the world as a whole.

Problems with capitalism as it has been practised up to 2010;

  • Capitalism is short sighted, it is a slave to profit and cares nothing for the environment and sustainability;
  • Company directors are bound by law to place the financial welfare of shareholders above most other considerations – this has lead to many large corporations resisting action on climate change. (See also Corporate greed);
  • Wealth gives some individuals an advantage over others that is ethically unjustifiable;
  • Capitalism has lead to a very uneven distribution of wealth – Western governments have failed to curb this increasing problem;
  • The inheritance of wealth gives an advantage to people who have done nothing to earn that advantage;
  • The financial collapse of 2008 was due to a fundamental failure of the capitalist system;

Update, late 2023

In 2023 capitalism continues to dominate the way that the world is run by humanity with consequent great cost to our shared environment. The money in the fossil fuel industries is so great that they continue to thrive despite the obvious need to urgently reduce emissions.

Wealth: a distortion of equal rights

In our present golden age, when there is perhaps more equality, democracy, freedom of thought, belief, speech and action than in any other time in history, perhaps the greatest departure from equality is an uneven and unfair distribution of wealth (property under another name).


Wealth replaces class and cast

In the twenty-first century wealth has replaced the old class system in Europe and the cast system in India (and similar systems elsewhere).

In the old class system your power and position in society depended on an accident of birth. Similarly in the Indian cast system, if you were born in a high cast family you had advantages that were neither earned nor justified.


Very uneven distribution of wealth in 2023

According to Global Citizen Facts:
  • The richest 1% own almost half of the world’s wealth, while the poorest half of the world own just 0.75%;
  • 81 billionaires have more wealth than 50% of the world combined;
  • The richest 1% own almost two-thirds of all the world’s new wealth.
And a billionaire emits a million times more carbon than the average person. (See also conspicuous consumption on another page on this site.)
Those who have wealth have more power than those who don't. Those who have the good fortune to be born into a wealthy family will most likely grow up to have much more power and privilege than those who are born into poor families. The obscenely wealthy, including the corporate bosses, have far more power over politicians in democratic nations than do the common people. (Yet the fundamental principle on which their lives is based, greed, is unethical. At the opposite end of the spectrum to the greedy corporate bosses are the numerous common people who freely volunteer much of their time for the public good – and they have little political power. Also see my page on Contribution.)

There is an entrenched and generally overlooked injustice here that is as great as any in the modern world.

Was it ever thus? I suppose even in the first civilisations there was a recognition of private property; and the more of it that an individual owned, the greater his status and power over his neighbours. Hunter-gatherers, because of their life-style, would not have been able to 'own' much property, but even if they had better spears and axes than the others in their group they would have some advantage.

I am retired and I own my own house. For that reason alone I am financially better off than most of those of my countrymen (Australians) who are retired but do not own their own houses. At the most fundamental level, what does 'own my own house' mean? The house and I are not joined together in any way that is physically different to the relationship the retiree who rents has with his home. The other fellow has to pay someone else – a person who has no physical connection to the house – for the privilege of using the house. Ownership is a convention that goes back into prehistory and that we all accept without much thought. How ethically justified is it? (See also my page on Land ownership.)

Thieves try to redistribute property. Probably in most cases, thieves remove property from the better off and redistribute it to people who are less financially well off: that is, to themselves. (Although very often thieves steel from their neighbours, who are probably little better off than themselves.) Many of us would think that a redistribution of wealth from those who have the most to those who have the least could be ethically justified; but not many would approve of thieves who take the process into their own hands. (See also my page on Theft.)

If wealth gives people power and advantage and those who are born into families or countries that are wealthy have an unfair advantage compared to others, is this situation acceptable in a world that supposedly values equal rights for all?

Communist regimes have tried separating people from some of their property; making all the means of production the property of the State, and attempting to make everyone equal and an employee of the State. It didn't work, at least partly because if people are to work their hardest they seem to have to have some advantage to themselves to aim for. (Communism also failed because those who gained power were either corrupt or became corrupted by that power and their aim became holding onto power first and foremost.)

We have evolved to look after ourselves first, and consider the needs of others second; and those others whose needs we are most likely to give most consideration to will be our families and probably then our friends and associates.

Deserved or undeserved wealth

Most would feel that the man who builds his own house has earned the right to live in that house. Similarly, the man who works at one job to earn money to pay someone else to build him a house has a right to ownership and residence in that house; so long as there is some equality between the two. But does a man (a corporate boss, for example), who is payed twenty times as much per hour as the builder, have the same right to ownership over the house that is produced? Does the man who inherited his wealth from his parents have as much right to the house that he purchases with that money?

Wealth seams to be justified if it has been fairly earned, but those who have got their wealth with disproportionally little effort compared to others have much less ethical right to their wealth.

Priorities of common people

"My World 2015: My Analytics"
Priorities ranked
United Nations global survey for citizens
The graph on the right was copied from My World 2015, by the UN. It shows a number of people's concerns ranked in order of priority.

From an ethical point of view it is interesting to note that 'Action on climate change', the most important of all the points for coming generations and the future of the planet, is ranked last. Those concerns that have the highest ranking have the more immediate and personal impact.

When people judge the importance of concerns such as these, their priorities are based not on the 'big picture' so much as on:

  • How will it impact them personally? In particular: will it affect them financially?
  • How immediate is any effect likely to be?
  • Is it close to home, regional, national or global?

Mazlow's hierarchy of needs is relevant here.

This section written 2015/04/26
Edited 2017/04/23

War and killing

Fighting in modern society is normally considered unacceptable. Killing our fellows is certainly unacceptable and also illegal; many would consider murder to be the worst crime of all.

Except in war. In war fighting and killing can not only become acceptable but even admirable – simply because they are sanctioned by the state. We are expected to accept that killing the enemies of the state is OK; it is the brave and right thing to do.

What an absurd, ridiculous and contradictory situation! In everyday life we are often highly critical of our governments. We don't generally trust our governments, and considering the level of corruption we Australians are seeing in the Abbott and Morrison governments, the way they are pandering to the fossil fuel lobby and ignoring the need to act for the good of all people and of the planet, we would have to be stupid to trust them.

Yet if our government decides that our country needs to go to war against some other country we become willing to fight, to try to kill 'the enemy' and die if necessary – because our government has somehow convinced us that right is on our side and killing has become the 'right thing to do'.

I've written more on this subject on another page.

This section added 2020/10/23

The disconnect between ethics and the law

There has always been a disconnect between ethics and the law; those who make the laws do not necessarily want to be bound by ethical considerations.

Laws are made by those in power in nations. Almost invariably the main aim of those in power is to hold onto that power.

At the time of writing (October 2020) perhaps the greatest disconnect between ethics and the law is in regard to climate change. Governments around the world support, and are supported by, powerful lobby groups such as the fossil fuel industries; this applies particularly in my country, Australia, which is one of the biggest exporters of coal in the world. Ethical imperatives dictate quite unambiguously that urgent action on climate change should take precedence over most other matters, yet governments, particularly Australian governments, are resisting this.

Supporting the fossil fuel industries against reason and against the speedy development of renewable energy that we must adopt if our grandchildren and our planet are to have a future not greatly inferior to the present should be against the law, but is not.

As I have written elsewhere, for a person in a position of power to dishonestly support the fossil fuel industries and oppose action to reduce greenhouse emissions is the greatest crime in the history of mankind, yet criminals like the US's President Donald Trump, Australia's Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison are not being held to account at all.

This section added 2023/07/14

Sugary drinks 'thrown in' with food 'deals': an unethical practice

A few days ago I visited the local pizza shop, one of the Domino's chain. My wife and I had decided to get a couple of pizzas for dinner for a change.

I noticed several 'deals' that were advertised, one of which was for two large pizzas, garlic bread and a 1.25 litre bottle of soft drink for $25. We certainly didn't want the bottle of soft drink.

I asked for two large pizzas. The girl said that would be (I think it was) $32. I pointed out that the advertised 'deal' was only $25. She said something like, 'Oh, you'd like the deal then?' I said 'yes please, but we don't want the drink'. She said 'you have to take the drink, it's part of the deal.' We did take 'the deal' together with the drink, and tipped the drink down the drain when we got home.

This form of marketing is an encouragement for people to drink sugary drinks that they don't need and don't necessarily want in a world in which sugary drinks are one of the main causes of the obesity epidemic. I'm sure it's not just Domino's that indulge in this very unethical practice, 'deals with a (sugary) drink included' are common.

This section added 2017/03/27

My ethics

Ethicists have worked for millenia to produce rules that can guide us in making the correct decision in any situation, but it seems to me that there are no rules that should ever be taken as absolutes, although several are very valuable. There are always exceptions to rules in ethics.

However, there are a few relevant philosophical rules to which I can think of no exceptions:

  • Never entirely accept the truth of anything without evidence;
  • Always hold on to doubt;
  • No person, group or creed holds all the answers.
While these rules can help us to wisely live our lives, they are not helpful in answering ethical questions about right and wrong.


If there are no hard and fast rules to ethics, why study the subject? Why read what others have written?

We need to read what others have written in order to understand the many ways of looking at ethical questions; to enable us to put aside our own selfish point of view and see situations from the point of view of others, including philosophers over the ages, but also of other people in general and other sentient beings living now and yet to be born.

Are the moral rules given us by religions clearer and more useful than those we might arrive at from ethics?

The short answer: no. Religious texts contain many contradictions; consider the rules and laws in the Old Testament of Christianity and how they changed with the New Testament. Even those who follow religion have to have some way to decide which rules from scriptures should be followed and which should be ignored.
The rules that ethicists have developed can give guidance, but we must always consider, "If I follow this rule in this case, is the result just?"

What this leads to, of course, is that there are no absolutes in ethics; there is no prescriptive ethical right or wrong. We could ask, "What use, then, is ethics?" Its use is to help us see clearly, to view a situation from several angles, to broaden our outlook, to see things from the point of view of others, especially those others who have less power and 'rights', such as non-human animals.

If there are no hard and fast rules, how can we know justice when we see it? Intuition? Surely not, intuition is terribly fallible!

In truth, intuition will play a part, but we must try to minimise it. Perhaps if we study ethics we can train our intuition? Surely right behaviour is important enough to justify some study.

In a practical case we can refer the situation and posible resolutions or actions to the rules that ethicists have given us, and those that we have worked out for ourselves, and see if they fit. "Would that action accord to rule A?, rule B?, rule C?" If it fails to fit several such tests it is more likely wrong than right. If there seem to be several answers that are nearly equally likely to be acceptable, we must give the point very careful consideration from several angles.

What rules or guidelines, while not being absolutes, are valuable in helping us find the correct answer?

  • Utilitarianism (roughly, what would produce the best outcome for the greatest number of people?);
  • The Golden Rule;
  • Ask "What would happen if everyone did that?";
  • Ask "Will that make the world a better place?";
  • Individual rights should be maximised so long as the rights of others are not infringed;
  • A person should have absolute right over his or her own body;
  • One has a responsibility to consider the needs of those less advantaged than oneself, including non-human animals, and those who will come after.
It may help you to decide what is the best course of action if you think of yourself explaining your action to someone, alive or dead, for whom you have or had great respect. See Mentor over your shoulder.

Finally, I should say that I have found some questions in ethics to be dilemmas (having no satisfactory answer). For example, how should a nation treat refugees? On the one hand there is an obligation to help people in need of help, on the other hand there is a responsibility to protect the rights and liberty of those who will come after us. More specifically, if we in Australia allow unrestricted access to refugees, as would seem to be the kind action, no matter what their beliefs and ideals, do we risk beliefs such as Islam becoming entrenched and eventually a threat to all Australians' right to live as they chose?

This section added 2021/03/09


Minimising one's consumption also minimises one's impact on our shared environment. Minimising our impact on the environment is essential if we are not to seriously damage our shared planet.

Our tiny mobile house
While many people our age bought huge camper vans or caravans worth tens of thousands of dollars and weighing tonnes, we bought this tent trailer for $3,000. The whole thing, trailer and all, weighs about 400kg.
We have since decided that we don't need the annex; by leaving it behind we can save about 13kg and by not erecting it we can save a quarter of an hour of setting up time.
On the road
The mobile tiny house folded up for the road.
A Honda Jazz has towed it many thousands of kilometres and several times over the Great Dividing Range with no problems, and uses about 7 litres of petrol per 100km while towing.
I think my wife and I have to some extent practiced minimalism for many years. For example, when we moved from Adelaide to Crystal Brook we bought a run-down and partly renovated hundred year old house for about a quarter of the typical house price of the time. So we didn't need to saddle ourselves with a mortgage that would take many years to pay off. We fixed up the old house over a decade or more and extended it when our kids were growing up. As much as we needed; no more.

But it was a program on Netflix by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus that put the name to Minimalism for us and moved me to write this section.

Joshua and Ryan argued that everyone can be happier if they downsize their houses, minimise consumption and the collection of unnecessary 'stuff'. The more you consume the more you have to work to pay off the costs of your consumption and the more stressful is your life.

Very relevant to minimalism in this sense is the tiny-house movement. This has been a reaction to the huge and continually growing cost of buying a home - often involving the taking on of a mortgage that will take 30 years or more to pay off. People in the past had, and people in third world countries have, much smaller and simpler houses. People in the West have been saddling themselves with bigger and bigger houses that come with bigger and bigger debts.

We've also been unknowingly involved in this; we have a shack where we spend quite a bit of our time. The living area is 36 square metres (although there is also a cellar).

Our cars have also been minimalist. Since our kids have grown up and left home we've had, consecutively, a Mazda 121 and two Honda Jazzes. When the kids were at home we had a Toyota Corona. All of these cars were the smallest that were practicable for our needs.

As I've noted elsewhere on these pages, increasing income beyond a level sufficient for covering our needs does not increase happiness. Joshua and Ryan argued that having more than enough actually reduces our satisfaction with our lives.

Of course, apart from the mental benefits that come from living minimally, we must have saved a lot of money over the years, well over a hundred thousand dollars I would think.


Recommended reading

In no particular order...
Socrates, Plato, the ancient Greek philosophers in general
The first recorded reasoned thoughts about ethics. Every thinking person in the West is influenced by these people, I was especially impressed by an early reading of Plato's Republic.

Richard Dawkins
The God Delusion, The Blind Watchmaker and The Greatest Show on Earth

Christoper Hitchens
God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Bertrand Russell
A history of Western philosophy

Peter Singer
Animal rights, How ethical is Australia, How are we to live?, One World: the ethics of globalisation

The Dalia Lama, Bstan-'dzin-rgya-mtsho
The Art of Happiness. He seems to have thoroughly developed the Buddhist art of dispassionate analysis of life.

Howard Zinn
A People's History of the United States

Jared Diamond
'Guns, germs and steel' and Collapse; every thinking person should read Collapse because of its applicability to the present times.

Catherine Ingram
'In the Footsteps of Gandhi', discusses a number of people who have adopted Gandhi's methods of non-violence to bring about change.

Peter Cave

Related pages

External sites

Future generations deserve good ancestors. Will you be one?;

Related pages on this site

Follow this link for list of pages on this site relating to ethics generally.

Follow this link for list of pages on this site relating to ethics in an Australian context.