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Measuring Morality
  • Introduction
  • What is Ethics?
  • Universality of Human Ethics

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Measuring Morality

What is right and wrong?

Ray Cotton


During a meeting of college educators at Harvard University, Cornell president Frank Rhodes rose to address the issue of reforms, suggesting that it was time for universities to pay "real and sustained attention to students' intellectual and moral well-being." Immediately there were gasps, even catcalls. One indignant student stood to demand of Rhodes, "Who is going to do the instructing? Whose morality are we going to follow?" The audience applauded thunderously, believing that the young man had settled the issue by posing an unanswerable question. Rhodes sat down, unable or unwilling to respond.{1}

This interchange between university president and college student hits at the most basic question in formulating any and every system of ethics, namely that of identifying the basis for determining the standards we humans designate as "right" or "wrong."

  1. What is ethics?

    Ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, meaning "what ought to be" or "a place of refuge," such as a cave, solid and absolute. Webster's dictionary defines ethics as (1) the study of standards of conduct and moral judgment or (2) the system or code of morals of a particular philosopher, religion, group, etc. Dr. Albert Schweitzer defined ethics as "the name we give for our concern for good behavior."

    There are two ways in which individuals go wrong. One is when we drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another and do one another damage, by cheating or bullying. The other is when things go wrong inside the individual--when the different parts of him (his different faculties and desires and so on) either drift apart or interfere with one another. You can get the idea if you think of us as a fleet of ships sailing in formation. The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another's way; and secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions, they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid collisions.

    But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is headed. However well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.

    We need to be concerned with three things. First, with fair play and harmony between individuals (ethics). Second, with what might be called tidying up or harmonizing the thing inside each individual (morality). Third, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on.

  2. Universality of Human Ethics

    No human lives without the ethical dimension. Statements like "That's not fair," or "You promised," reveal the common ethical assumptions humans have come to expect of one another. This is not to say that each human always acts responsibly toward his fellows. In every culture we find individuals who choose to ignore the commonly-held standards; they choose to rape, to steal, to kill. Breaking established standards is therefore a relative issue; that is, some do, and some don't. But an absolute is also involved: no one likes to be raped, robbed, or murdered.


    Our perspective on ethical behavior is based on the value we place upon the human species, and our foundational world view. There are three basic world views: Theism, Naturalism, and Pantheism. Only those who hold to a theistic world view will approach ethics from a God- centered perspective.

1998 Probe Ministries
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