Philosophy & Ethics

Is morality and happiness determined by how you affect the people around you? Credit: Shutterstock

By Peter Bowden, University of Sydney

It is a word we hear from time to time, but few of us know what it means.

A Liberian nurse disinfects a looted mattress taken from an elementary school that was used as an Ebola isolation unit in West Point, Monrovia, Liberia. AHMED JALLANZO/EPA

By Ian Kerridge, University of Sydney and Lyn Gilbert, University of Sydney

Getting informed consent from desperate people and their families for experimental treatments is quite easy.

Isaac Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics, from the story "Runaround" in 1942, are arguably the most famous example of fictional ethics becoming so fundamental they are adopted spontaneously by everyone in an industry that hadn't even been created yet.(1)

Now that robots are widely used in caring for older people, as well as in military and industrial applications, scholars want to give them a 21st century update.

In 312, Roman Emperor Constantine was told in a dream to paint a cross on his army’s shields.[1] Based on that dream, he commanded his generals to slap crosses on pretty much everything. If it went into battle, it had a cross on it.

And lo, when his army faced the rebel army that was twice the size of his, his soldier guys smote them other soldier guys real bad and got all pre-medieval on their butts; and Constantine did declare, “Hot Damascus, it worked!” (Obviously, I am paraphrasing; I don’t speak Latin.) So, Constantine remained emperor of Rome and a Christian, sort of.

     Today is my 43rd birthday. When I was 34 years old, I walked along a narrow river through the city of Nanning in the south of China. I was lonely and depressed, no matter the PhD degree I had recently obtained, my freedom, the beauty all around, the women I could easily befriend wherever.

I came to the conclusion that my life is not worth its suffering, and that it must either change, that I must change, or it is idiotic to go on living. I asked myself:

Steve Jobs was a good CEO, a visionary. He was also known as a monster driven to fits of rage and a known SEC law violator who gave himself stock options without bothering to tell anyone. He gave nothing to charity. He was in both a personal and a business sense, greedy.

But he was good for shareholders. 

When is a greedy CEO bad for business instead of good? An article in the Journal of Management examines the effects of greed on shareholder wealth and looks at whether various contextual factors, like a strong board of directors, CEO tenure and discretion make the situation better or worse. The results were that a powerful board or long CEO tenure can moderate the relationship between greed and shareholder return.

In the modern American political climate, we see echoes of 40 years ago, when Richard Nixon was president. Federal agencies are being used as hatchetmen for the administration, copies of messages mysteriously get lost when subpoenaed by Congress, and if anyone objects to domestic spying, we are told it's to stop terrorism.

Stopping terrorism seems to be an agreeable notion to people, that is why it has become a blanket excuse for all kinds of government conduct. 

And it has even become a way to use medical care.

Compassion can produce counterintuitive results, challenging prevailing views of empathy's effects on moral judgment, say philosophers in a new paper

To understand how humans make moral choices, the philosophers asked subjects to respond to a variety of moral dilemmas, such as whether to stay and defend a mortally wounded soldier until he dies or shoot him to protect him from enemy torture and enable you and five other soldiers to escape unharmed.

Ethicists say people make choices based on a struggle within their brains between thoughtful reason and automatic passion.

Since it is election season in America, we can expect a new wave of social psychology papers claiming that political liberals are smarter and more creative than political conservatives. It makes good mainstream news fodder, just like sexism in hurricane names does. Some of the articles will even bolster their case with fMRI images to seem scientific.

Outside people with confirmation bias, surveys of college students done by psychologists are easily dismissed, but what about genetic data? A paper in Neuron argues that genetic evidence for criminality may be on the horizon.