Ethics : from the Greek word ethikos, meaning ‘character’, refers to customary ways to behave in society

Morality : from Latin word moralis, concerned with which actions are right and which are wrong

Today these terms are often used interchangeably


Read the following introduction to TOK Ethics by Elvira Vian. I think that this sums up our primary questions and areas of concern very well. Find the link to the article's source and more as you like below.

Theory of Knowledge Ethics - How Do We Know What is Right and Wrong?

Only four men survived the ship wrecked Mignonette in 1884, floating for three weeks in the Atlantic in a lifeboat. On the 19th day the captain Thomas Dudley suggested they drew lots to decide who would be killed and eaten, but one man objected. On the 20th day Dudley told the others to look away, offered a prayer and cut the throat of the cabin boy, aged 17, who was sick from drinking seawater. They ate his body. Four days later they were rescued by another ship and the three survivors were charged with murder in the law case The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens.

It is significant that murder and cannibalism could be argued to be reasonable in this case. On utilitarian grounds the actions of Dudley are justified because they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. However, using deontological ethical theories, murder is wrong in itself, regardless of the consequences for others. If cannibalism is disgusting and our emotional response is that what happened is intuitively wrong, we might ask ourselves if our disgust is reasonable? Would we have done otherwise? Or could the case be put that Dudley acted rationally?

In TOK ethics, it is tempting to conclude that because there is no agreement about standards of right and wrong, it follows that there is no knowledge in ethics. After all, individuals and cultures do not have the same moral standards. However, our ethical judgements are just that - judgements. We can make better or worse judgements in ethics and our task in TOK is to know the difference. Paul Grobstein stated that: "there is no such thing as 'right', the very concept needs to be replaced with 'progressively less wrong.' " So although certain knowledge in ethics is hard to find, we can make progress by arriving at moral judgements that are considered. So in your response to the case above, ask yourself 'why do I think that?'

In ethics we are dealing with a plurality of truths. It'll be worth questioning the basis there might be for ethical truth across cultures. What are good reasons for holding our moral beliefs? Pay close attention to the words used to express moral viewpoints; we know that in the language or war, 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter', and in the above case, 'one man's cannibalistic murderer is another man's hero with superior survival instincts.'

Perhaps the challenge in TOK ethics is to look for what moral knowledge cultures might have in common. Even the notion of right and wrong is shared across cultures, even if the standards to which this approximates, differs. The idea of shared values is embodied in the idea of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

So to conclude, tolerance of other people's views is a fundamental principle but it does not follow that all moral views are of equal value. Freedom of speech and the right to express your own view is essential, but there may be some moral views that are not as sound as others. The task of ethics is to examine the grounds on which we hold our moral beliefs. How do we decide about the case above; killing a person as a means to an end is objectionable, but the instinct to survive in extreme conditions might demand we re-think our moral paradigms? It's for you to decide.

For more top tips for Theory of knowledge visit Elvira Vian's Theory of Knowledge student
Article Source:

Sam Harris presents a fairly detailed (for a 20 minute talk) argument that morality and ethics are not relative but that the right and wrong of our actions and judgements depend on the effects they have on the cognitive states (i.e the pain, pleasure, well being, etc of the human/animal consciousness) resulting from them. Harris also suggests, as the title of his talk indicates, that science and the world of empirical facts helps us determine right and wrong.

Science can answer moral questions: Sam Harris on

If you have difficulty following Harris' points here are what I think are his main suggestions: Harris Cheat Sheet

Discussion Posting

  1. Write a thoughtful response (around 250-300 words) to one of the questions below. Post on your class discussion page in the toolbar on the left.
  2. Comment on at least two other responses. One of your comments must be to a response without any comments. Make this something more substantial than, "Great Response!"

  • Sam Harris' basic moral principle is that human morality and human values are reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes. We might find our moral concerns around the states of happiness, sadness or fulfillment of another person for instance (i.e. concern for the well being of child soldiers kidnapped and brainwashed under this Kony fellow). Do you agree with this?
  • Can Science answer moral questions?
  • Is Harris correct in his assertion that there are right answers to moral questions? Are there moral facts?
  • Is Harris really making an argument about the relationship between Science and moral questions or is he mostly making an argument against moral relativism (the belief that all moral claims/principles are relative to the context of culture and perspective and thus not universally true)?
  • Is Harris committing a number of straw man fallacies (building straw men and then knocking them down to make his points seem more valid)?

Here is an interesting reply to Sam Harris' argument
Reading: van de Lagemaat p.p. 363-376

Lesson 1: The Princess and the Dragon

Lesson 2: Ethics and Moral Relativism

Lesson 3: Ethical Theories

Other resources

Noble Savages MORAL ORIGINS: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame.

Ethics AoK Vocabulary:

Altruism, Cultural imperialism, Duty ethics, Egoism, Golden rule, Moral absolutism, Moral principle, Moral relativism, Other-regarding desires, Relativism, Rights, Rule worship, Self-interest theory, Self-regarding desires, Special pleading, Utilitarianism, Value-judgment, Veil of ignorance

TOK Lexicon of all our vocabulary