Ethical Dimensions of Conflict
LEcture 2

Ethical Systems

How can a knowledge of different ideas of right and wrong help us understand conflicts?
Plenty of conflicts arise when various actors have different ideas of what's right and wrong.

What are some of the more enduring ways
of thinking about ethical choices, and are they
really destined to result in disputes?
"Generally," says Nalini Ramlakhan, "ethics deals with our systems of values and morality." And since we're dealing with conflict, it's important to understand how different moral and value systems work and how they can clash.

Which means that today's lecture is going to go over some of the more influential moral theories in philosophy, in hopes of creating a base for the rest of the course.

As a whole the field of ethics tries to answer a number of different questions – mostly about how we should live our lives. What things we should do or not do, for example, or what kinds of attitudes are good to have toward specific issues. Sometimes this is extended to what personal qualities or traits we should develop in ourselves.

Which all means that ethics, like other branches of philosophy, is tricky. Slippery. Because there are so many different types of answers to these questions, and people derive their answers from different sources. Sometimes our answers are set by default from our upbringing or culture, or maybe we find arguments that resonate with ourselves, or we adapt ourselves to intellectual or religious traditions.

That leads to a lot of different ethical systems to live by, and a lot of choices to make. Sometimes when we brush up against people who live by a different system, it's an opportunity to get curious and appreciate diversity. Other times, we might feel like we need to take a stand against behaviour that's (to us) problematic, sinful, irresponsible or perhaps downright evil.

This is a common source of conflict, and it can happen between people and between military alliances – there can be a strong temptation to police the behaviour of others, for a number of different reasons. Which is one reason to study ethics: to get to know people's value systems. To get to know your value system.

In addition to becoming more introspective, this helps us to engage with different kinds of conflicts that we find ourselves enmeshed in. The field of applied ethics is often drawn upon by activists, public intellectuals and community leaders to lend aid to their arguments – philosophy popularizer Nigel Warburton points out that "if we cannot say why such things as torture, murder, cruelty…are wrong, what justification can we have for trying to prevent them?"

For practitioners working in the field, ethics has a practical value and can help guide policies concerning environmental practices, dialogue between groups in conflict, technological developments and other social issues. The application of different ethical theories, the wisdom goes, can lead to positive social changes.

Although, of course, you have to think about what you define as 'positive,' and why. Because there will definitely be people who disagree with you.

But even before we get to these sticker questions we have to deal with something else: why should we be ethical? Why should you be ethical? Or me?

Self-interest is one answer that's given, and many have wondered about whether or not it's possible to act not in self-interest. For those who think not, a reason for ethics can be given in the form of the good life. Many philosophers will justify their ethical theories using their idea of the good life, of course mentioning that achieving it is more than enough reason to be ethical.

Aristotle, who we'll get to in a minute, believed that being virtuous was important for living a good life, and exercising good habits can help make for a good life. Contemporary moral philosopher Christine Vitrano argues that a good life includes a life where one acts morally, saying that a good life "is one in which an individual acts morally while achieving happiness."

This idea of happiness is important to a number of philosophers, with the good life being seen, as Vitrano mentioned above, as finding a balance between doing the right thing while living happily and meaningfully.

Theories of Well Being

The search for this balance often starts with trying to figure out different ways that we can live happily and meaningfully, and some of the ingredients could be pleasure, health, love, freedom, friendship, accomplishment, knowledge, family or other factors. Not everyone will value all these things the same way, and this can be one source of conflict. When we're involved in analyzing or resolving some kind of dispute, trying to figure out how people rank these and other values differently can contribute to a breakthrough.

If there are things that can help you live a good life, there are unfortunately also factors that can prevent you from doing the same. Pain, for example. Or illness, failure, manipulation, betrayal. Death. Suffering. All of that. And, depending on what we want to achieve or avoid, there are different paths to optimizing and prioritizing these two lists.

One way is called egoism, which is different from egotism. Egoists say that you are the arbiter of ethics, and so the right thing to do is whatever it is that's in your best interests. Other people don't have moral claims on you, and if they do then they (intentionally or no) are manipulating you or trying to fulfill their own interests.

A question that egoism raises is whether we have any reasons or justifications for not putting our well-being and interests before others.

Some people are psychological egoists, who say that we're hard-wired to look out after our own interests (and that we can extend our interests to include the interests of others, depending on what our relationships are). This is more of a descriptive claim, while ethical egoism is the idea that, ethically speaking, you are entirely justified in looking out for yourself until you see a reason not to. The good life here, then, would be seen as living a life of rational self-interest.

Then you get the hedonists. Hedonism is a popular and controversial theory of well-being that is, at times, not entirely understood. It's often tied to ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270), and the main thought is that only our experiences of pain and pleasure matter for our well-being. For some this means we should treat life as one big party, while others say there's something deeply responsible at work here: pleasure isn't only about kicks, it's a deep psychological reality that moves us. And they ask why wouldn't we want to eliminate pain?

There are all sorts of other theories of well being, and ultimately we have to choose which one either resonates most or seems the most right or otherwise makes the most sense to us. Some believe in a God who tries to share with us how meaning and well-being works, while others (particularly the existentialists) say that we're the ones that create meaning. For them, existence precedes essence, meaning that the fact that we're alive comes before some greater, objective meaning in the universe. We're free to choose what theory we want to live by – that might seem empowering at first, but the existentialists sometimes frame this as being condemned to choose. As in we're left on our own, and it's not a light burden.

Thinking About Ethics

When trying to classify different ethical systems, there are a couple factors we can be on the lookout for. Do we think that there's something objective in an ethical claim, something that's true for everyone and for all time? Or do we think it's subjective, dependent on different factors? Different kinds of subjectivity could be relative or situational ethics, which rely on different contexts to tell us if something is right or wrong.

One far end of the spectrum is absolutism, which is an objective-based system where there are moral absolutes. Think of universal standards and principles that everyone everywhere must abide by. This could include ideas of objective moral truths, standards and principles, or claims that there are basic and fundamental human rights that all nations need to respect.

The benefits of working with a system like this is that it's something concrete, possibly achievable. It's a framework that helps resolve moral conflict, and it can be seen as universal or impartial. The negatives, though, are that this can lead to one group claiming their ethics are more important than everyone else's and trying to get everyone to comply. It can also be difficult to establish what exactly impartial standards should look like, and some critics say that various 'objective' systems include the biases of the people who form them. That, and absolutist systems can be too rigid to deal with exceptions to a standard or principle.

Looking at culture is also key here, because it helps shape who we are and how we see the world. Certain values are cultural values, and without a certain kind of distance we might assume our cultural values are objective ones. Which obviously can lead to different kinds of conflict. And it's not only an issue of different cultures interacting, but also how there can be major differences within one culture. Or how culture can shift from generation to generation.

Cultural values are often expressed in customs and norms. We'll be looking more at norms next week, but for now it suffices to say that you can have conventional norms (what to wear at a funeral) as well as moral norms (who you can or can't have sex with.

The idea that ethical standards come down to culture is called cultural relativism, and it implies that all norms, values and ideas are relative to the culture you're from. There aren't any universal standards or truths here. Its proponents say it's a great basis for tolerance, but its critics say we won't have any moral basis to oppose Hitler or cultures like that of Nazi Germany.

Taking things even further is the idea of moral subjectivism, which says it all comes down to individuals. Everyone is the author of what is morally right or wrong for them. Some say that this can step too far into the realm of moral nihilism, while others say it's a realistic claim in a world where everything is constructed.

But these are all different building blocks, and through the centuries philosophers and moral thinkers have assembled them into different systems. There are too many out there to cover in one lecture, though, so Nalini picks four that are hopefully relevant in our work and contexts.

Aristotilean Virtue Ethics

Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 348-322. A student of Plato, Aristotle is one of the foundational thinkers in the Western tradition, and his thought on ethics can be found in the book Nicomachean Ethics. For him, ethics is a matter of finding out and achieving the highest good, and his ensuing virtue ethics system is one of the most well-known and influential moral theories.

A key concept for him is eudaimonia, which was used in Greek philosophy to describe living the best life possible. It is usually agreed upon that the best English translation is 'flourishing,' and, for Aristotle, our lives should be organized around achieving eudaimonia. The idea of virtue here is meant as a strategy to develop that kind of life.

This is the key to virtue ethics: if you've internalized virtue enough, then you start doing good actions for the sake of the good actions rather than for ulterior motives. But it requires a solid moral education beforehand, both because you need practice but also because you need to know what's virtuous or not. It requires a lot of practical wisdom.

Take the virtue of generousity. To practice it well, you have to know who to give to, when to give and how much to give. Ethics should be springing from who you are rather than specific rules or actions.

This obviously leads to a lot of discussion about which traits are virtuous, or which of the virtues is most important. Some time-tested traits include being brave, courageous, honest, loyal, trustworthy, compassionate, kind, wise, caring and more.

But there are still questions and dilemmas to work through. Take this case study, for example:
George is on his way home from work. While heading down the freeway, he sees a car smashed up against the guardrail. Although he first considers just calling the police, he then decides to pull over. Walking up to the car, George finds a woman sitting behind the wheel, unconscious. Not realizing that persons with neck injuries (a common effect of traffic accidents) can be paralyzed or even killed by movement, George pulls the woman from the car. Luckily, she had no neck injuries and so is not harmed by George's action. Just as he gets her a few feet away, the car bursts into flames. In less than a minute, the fuel tank explodes—but George and the woman are safe.

What do you think of George's moral character? Did he act virtuously? Suppose that in moving the woman, George severed one of her nerves; as a result, his action saved her from a fiery death but also paralyzed her for life. Would that make any moral difference? Why or why not?
From Burnor and Raley (2018)
Because virtue ethics concerns itself with the person doing the action, it leaves fewer questions for the moral outcomes. Also, it leaves room open for all sorts of differences: if you see a dying enemy soldier, your loyalty may compel you to let them die, but maybe your compassion will compel you to save their life. Aristotle doesn't see this as a kind of moral relativism, though. It just implies that there's a range of morally appropriate actions.

Because virtue ethics concerns itself with the person doing the action, it leaves less attention for moral outcomes. Also, it leaves room for all sorts of differences. If you see an enemy soldier, your loyalty may compel you to let them die, but your compassion would compel you to save their life. Both choices are seen as moral, but this doesn't imply some kind of moral relativism. It merely allows for a range of morally right actions.

This places a lot of responsibility on the individual, since it[s up to us to know, intend and practice virtuous behaviour. Ignorance, particularly willful ignorance, is probably seen here as a moral failing. But given the focus on personal development in ancient Greek philosophy, this comes as no surprise.

But Aristotle doesn't only focus on the individual: for him, society is responsible for promoting virtue and diminishing vice. Good laws and leadership, in this system, help promote a virtuous society, which in turn helps individuals become virtuous people. Bad laws and leadership make it difficult to develop virtue.

Of course, though, when you bring leadership and law into the picture there rises the question of who decides what is or is not virtuous, and what legal penalties can be assigned depending on the vice in question. This can also lead to conflict (particularly rebellion) when ideas of the good life conflict in one society.


Another major moral theory is called deontology, and it's concerned with the idea of duty. Instead of looking at internal virtues, it's your actions that defines whether you're in the right or not.

This is a moral theory that claims that morality should be understood in terms of obligations – in other words, what matters is whether someone is following the rules.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher who worked during the Enlightenment, developing what's known today as Kantian deontology, in books like Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

He developed the idea of the categorical imperative, which claims that obligations or rules are supposed to apply to everyone, and not just particular people. We should act in such a way that our reasons for doing something can become universal. And when Kant discusses universalizing a principle or choice, of your action, he asks us to consider what the world would be like if everyone did the same. In choosing a maxim, you are effectively choosing for everyone to obey it.


If virtue ethics is about who you are and what your intentions are, and if deontology is about your actions, then it follows that there's a tradition that focuses on the consequences of choice choices. Broadly speaking this is called consequentialism, the belief that consequences have moral significance, but we're only going to focus on one kind of consequentialism today.

There are different ways of evaluating consequences, one of which is about maximizing happiness. This is the key principle of an approach called utilitarianism which claims that the morally right action is the one that produces the greatest benefits (like happiness) to the most amount of people.

It sounds like a solid principle, though many argue about how exactly to measure benefit, and if there are any limits. For example, is it right to commit an action that some would see as morally bad, if it was to prevent something even worse? The trolley problem is a famous example of this:
In the dilemma, there's a train that's heading towards five people who are tied to the tracks. If the train hits them, they will all die. But there's a switch that will turn the train to another set of tracks where there's only one person tied up. According to utilitarianism, it's moral to throw the switch and have one person get killed instead of three.

Some moral thinkers say that, because you're throwing the switch, you'd be morally accountable in some way. But since the train is already running, though, that moral effect might be diminished.

The footbridge problem intensifies the question:
In this case, you're over a bridge and see that the train is heading towards another group of people tied to the tracks. Here you have a different choice: there's a very large person on the bridge with you, and if you push them over it'll be enough to stop the train from hitting the five people.

Does this feel different than the first example? The pure utilitarian would say no, but maybe a deontologist would say yes because in this case you're actively killing one person to save five.

This is an example of what's called act utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism doesn't focus so much on individual actions – it asks whether a rule is likely to lead to the greatest good. From there, individual moral actions are judged based on how well they follow these rules. So it's like a combination of utilitarianism and deontology. It's conceivable that 'do not push people over bridges' could be seen as a rule that contributes to the greater good, and so the person in the footbridge dilemma might say they're justified in not pushing the other person over.

Contemporary thinker Peter Singer substitutes happiness or pleasure for personal interests in his preference utilitarianism. For him, we all have preferences and they need to be taken into consideration. He is also famous for saying we should include the preferences and interests of animals, not only human beings.

Care Ethics

Developed by certain feminists in the second half of the twentieth century, care ethics was an attempt to affirm the importance of women's experience, the existence of gender bias and the need for moral reform.

Philosopher Carol Gilligan says that there's a moral feminine perspective that differs from a masculine one, one that takes into account personal identity and gender differences. For her, looking at ethics through a lens of justice is masculine, but looking at things through a lens of care is feminine.

While some find her essentialism problematic (it implies that all men favour justice over care, and vice versa for all women), care ethicists of all types tend to criticize justice-based theories as presenting a distorted picture of human nature and, thus, are incomplete.

They declare that we cannot and should not universalize morality – people should do things not out of duty, but because they care. In this paradigm, impartiality isn't as important and you should actually bring your subjective contexts to the decision. Context and relationship are important, as are moral emotions as compared to pure rationality.

Relationships are the core of this line of thought, and developing both character and moral responsibility is seen as arising from our connections with other people.

As you can imagine, this generates a lot of discussion. Nalini doesn't push her own values onto us (though she certainly has them), but hopes that we're able to use these frameworks to help analyze why people make decisions in regular contexts, as well as in situations of conflict.
Nalini Ramlakhan is contract instructor at St. Paul University; her research interests include ethics, philosophy and cognitive science.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied conflict and ethics at St. Paul University in 2020.
Banner photo by Tim Pierce on mioromag
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Further Reading
Moral Motivation Across Ethical Theories:
What Can We Learn for Designing
Corporate Ethics Programs?
de Colle, Simone and Patricia H. Werhane. 2008.
Journal of Business Ethics 81:751–764.