Pete Bagnall

A definition of Ethics

Over the last few years I've been trying to decide what it is that makes some actions ethical and others unethical. What are the fundamental principles on which ethical behaviour depends? Not being a religious person I have wanted to find a secular answer to this question that will appeal to most people's visceral understanding good and bad. For example, why is parental discipline ethical, even though it is unpleasant for children and often causes them discomfort?

The conclusion I came to fairly quickly was based on the idea of happiness. People want to be happy, and so anything which helps them achieve that is considered good. The reverse, hurting people, is considered bad. Trying to break that down any further, to ask why is happiness good and pain bad seems to be somewhat fruitless. That is the way life is, and by life I include other species besides humans. The pursuit of happiness is not just a human trait.

The total outcome

Any action can be classified by who it affects. To judge whether it is ethical or not the effect it has on all those affected must be considered. If for example I were to give someone a gift, that may make them happy, and so it would be considered a good act. However, if I'd stolen it from someone else that bad act would also have to taken into account for a complete picture, in this case making the whole act unethical.

What makes ethical decisions so complex is that it is frequently incredibly difficult to determine just who is genuinely affected by any act, and what the total balance of good versus bad effects are. In general it is probably not even possible to know. In the previous example imagine the item in question were a pen. It's not a severe crime you might imagine for it to be stolen, and the rightful owner might not be that upset. But now imagine that it were a family heirloom. With that extra piece of information it suddenly takes on more importance. But now imagine further that the person I then gave it to needed a pen to do an exam, which would decide whether or not they could get the job they had applied for. Each small piece of context makes the assessment more complex, and that is the case even in the simplest of circumstance.

Most of the things that people do on a day to day basis have little lasting consequence. But there are many actions which do have, and these need special consideration. Because, to truly decide whether or not an act is ethical we need to consider not just who it affects now, but all the people it will ever affect. A very obvious example is the environment. It has been argued that being environmentally responsible is expensive. Lets assume this is true. The expense however is one we must bear now. But the cost of not being careful is that future generations will have a poorer environment in which to live, and will have worse lives as a result. Because we must look at all the consequences into the future this carelessness becomes clearly unethical.

The long term consequences of parental discipline are that a child will be more socially able, and a better person in all likelihood. That benefit is sufficiently great to warrant some discomfort in the present. But here of course the immediate discomfort should still be as little as possible to achieve the long term benefit.


Most people it seems have an innate understanding of what is and isn't fair. It seems that people believe that fairness is an important part of ethical behaviour, and so I wanted to examine this to see if fairness is a fundamental ethical requirement, or if it can be derived from more basic principles. My conclusion is that it can be derived. Here's why...

Lets imagine that we find a beggar on the street. We decide to give him 1000. This makes him very happy given that he can now eat, and find somewhere to stay for the night where he might get a hot bath and so on. This 1000 makes a huge difference to his life. Now lets imagine we give him another 1000. This is also gratefully received but it's not worth as much as the first 1000. That first 1000 made more of a difference to the beggars life. This is often known as the law of diminishing returns. If you keep putting in more and more effort or money into something what you get back for any single unit of effort slowly diminishes. If you gave that 1000 to a millionaire it's unlikely that they'd even notice much.

Now lets imagine that there are in fact two beggars. We have 2000 to give away, and we have a choice. We can give 2000 to one, and nothing to the other, we can split it 1000 each way, or anything in between. If we take a rather mathematical approach and assume diminishing returns it turns out that the maximum total happiness for both beggars can be gained by splitting the money evenly. Since the second 1000 makes less impact than the first we get more bang for our buck if we're fair about it.

We can take much the same logic and apply it to much larger populations. In societies where there are large discrepancies between rich and poor, especially when the poor are lacking basic needs, it is very clear that the best way to maximise the levels of happiness is to distribute the wealth as evenly as possible. This is in fact enshrined in most tax systems to some extend which demand that the richer someone is the more tax they should pay. That tax then is intended to be spent in an even manner to benefit the whole of society. (That doesn't always, or even usually happen, but that is another issue). This higher level of tax for the rich is seen as fair because it is aimed at producing a fairer distribution of wealth.

Of course fairness doesn't only deal with money. Parental affection, educational opportunities, and many other things can also be distributed fairly or unfairly. In each of these cases, although the analysis may not be possible mathematically the same principles apply. But often there are other factors that will complicate matters. For example, imagine two children, one of which is very intelligent, and learns quickly, the other is not so quick and needs more help. Fairness in this context does not mean that the two should get the same amount of the teachers attention. The intelligent child needs less. This is analogous to being richer, and so the law of diminishing returns suggests that the time would be better spent helping the less able child. So fairness does not mean giving the same to everyone, in fact it is more complex. It means giving in such a way as to gain the maximum benefit to the group as a whole, and that sometimes means giving one a larger share. But the one who gets the larger share must always be the one who's needs are greatest.


Overall then, an ethical act is one which maximises happiness, now and in the future, for everyone. This is the principle that should guide action. The principle is enormously difficult to achieve, and the best we can reasonably expect is a rough approximation of this. The rest of ethics, I argue, is simply the wisdom to make a better approximation than we might do unguided.

© Peter Bagnall