ethics philosophy

everyday ethics

Today I walked past a man sitting on a bench on the sidewalk. He was –no doubt– simply taking a work break. He was smoking. This happens all the time… Sure, some people probably don’t appreciate the small of cigarette smoke as they walk by, but it’s still no big deal, right?

Then, minutes later, in the Turkish shop I was getting lunch at, a guy lined up behind me. I thought I recognised him. He was wearing sunglasses, so I wasn’t sure. I thought he might have been the new pastor at the Presbyterian church my wife and I were married at (after all, the church was a short walk away). A look at his T-shirt confirmed that it wasn’t… This man was wearing a T-shirt which described him as a ‘porn star’ – complete with two stick-figures engaged in thoroughly porn-ish activity… This was more noticeable and irritating to me. I wondered if this man had ever considered (a) if there were any possible messages implicit in his T-shirt and (b) if that message would be ‘picked up’ by youner kids… But, then again… these kinds of T-shirts are fairly common, now-a-days… aren’t they? Was this a big deal?

This made me think about all kinds of things that people do… in all kinds of places… at all kinds of times… for all kinds of reasons…

How do we define what is ‘ethical’ and/or ‘moral’? How should we respond to people doing things that we view as ‘un-ethical’ or ‘immoral’??? After all, it’s ‘just our own opinion’, right? I mean, who are we to tell someone else they shouldn’t do something; or to point out the effects of someone’s actions? Especially a stranger on the street?

I could have stopped and sat next to the smoking man and sparked a discussion with him about human rights and how funny they are… I could have done it real nice, too.

(me:) “Hi there. How’s it going? Can I ask you a few questions? What do you think about human rights? I mean, you can’t take them too far, can you? It’s kinda like one person’s right to do something eventually infringes on someone else’s right to do another thing, know what I mean? For example, and don’t take this as a personal attack: your personal right to sit here on this bench and smoke, eventually infringes on the right of others to breathe smoke-free air when they walk by this bench. Interesting stuff, huh?”

(smoker-man:) “Go take a flying leap, buddy…”

(me:) “Umm… OK… sorry…” (walks away sheepishly)

I also could have tried a similar conversation with the porn-ish t-shirt man… Probably with similar results… Actually, I reckon smoker-man might have been nicer about it than porn-ish t-shirt man…

What do you think? Should we talk to people about such things? Should we complain to city-council? Maybe push the government to make a ‘smokers zone’ around the corner somewhere, so others don’t have to smell smoke? (I’ve seen that done in other places…)

What about porn-ish t-shirts? How far is too far for a t-shirt? I’ve seen t-shirts with full-on nudity on them… I’ve seen a t-shirt for a baby that reads: ‘future porn star’… Nice, huh? Good on ya, mom and dad…  I’ve seen t-shirts that read: ‘sluts rock’. That’s just lovely…

Are there laws and regulations for what a t-shirt can show or say? Should there be? Is this getting a bit ridiculous? Too strict? Not strict enough? Would laws help? Why do we have laws then? Why laws for some things and not others???

Take a look at the following activities and let me know what you think about them…

  • T-shirt with ‘F^@k you, and your litle dog too’ on it…
  • T-shirt with a graphic and realistic picture of an explicit sexual act on it…
  • Smoker in a crowed bus station…
  • Smoker in a mosque…
  • Smoker at a construction site…
  • Woman with an extremely low-cut top on…
  • Woman with a see-thru top on…
  • Woman topless on a beach…
  • Woman topless in a third-world country
  • Teenagers making out at a school-bus stop
  • Teenagers using swear-words loudly around others

The list could go on…

What thoughts come to mind when thinking on such things?

17 replies on “everyday ethics”

as far as smoking is concerned, there should be separate smoking lounges and smoke-free places. It is something that’s a direct health issue…you can’t force your health-risking endeavor down other people’s nostrils. You chose to lose a few moments from your life for gaining a few with puffs, not me. So I should be spared from it. That’s one of the reasons I believe that drinking alcohol in public is not that bad a thing.

As far the t-shirt thing is concerned, that’s something you just have to deal with. People have the right to have their own ideologies and wear it on their shirt too. You may not respect their views, but you have to respect their right to have that view.

About children, yes, they need to be educated a bit more carefully in the modern world. But the most important thing is not to impose an idea on them, but to present both ideas and let them decide which one is better. That’s the way one should grow:

“not perfect, but free.”

“A look at his T-shirt confirmed that it wasn’t” the pastor. Maybe it was the pastor – maybe it was a way of hiding to take a day off, maybe he leads a secret double life, maybe he’s immersing himself in the real world…maybe we have less to fear from someone who outright yells “i’m promiscuous” than someone who pretends to be pure.

But those observations aside, the T-shirts should surely be subject to the same rules as the rest of advertising. But there doesnt seem to be uniform rules, I know kids can listen to some hideous song lyrics too and that seems to be fine. I know that as a secondary school teacher my workplace does not allow staff to wear any clothing with alcohol or drug advertising/endorsement. The issue came up when a teacher was wearing a shirt with a small beer company logo on it. Its funny though as one of the staff at work has a copy on the wall of the ethical rules for teachers when she started and it was heaps stricter. So I guess the rules change. Interesting questions though Dale!
I can’t say I agree with chachi regarding children though “present both ideas and let them decide” Do you want to wear your seatbelt, no its uncomfortable, opps you’re dead – bad decision, but at least you were free to make it…

Yeah, good point – I suppose it could after all have been him! :) I hope not, though! :)

Thanks for the visit and comment!
I’m wondering where you draw the line between issues that require laws and/or some kind of regulation, and other issues which (as you say) ‘you just have to deal with’…?


Chachi – Been thinking about the line “not perfect but free” . While I don’t think its appropriate for children I do wonder about adults. I mean God let us have the choice to eat the apple, he obviously preferred ‘not perfect but free’ over ‘perfect and not free’. He didn’t say it would be terrible if you ate an apple from that tree therefore I’m banning it, hiding it, putting a Ristricted Access sign on it. God obviously put a high value on our freedom to choose, and like you say its through that process that we grow. Is there a point to trying to regulate everything and hiding things to take away/reduce the possibility of a bad choice? Does it actually make you more likely to swear if you hear teenagers swearing, more likely to become a porn star or paedophile if you see a kid in one of those highly sexed T-shirts etc? Surely a big part of growing is establishing your values so you can ‘just deal with it’ and make a good choice.
Is the sin in you or the object?

While the word ‘apple’ isn’t in the Garden of Eden story, the points about free choice rings through. I do believe God does not manipulate, coerce or otherwise ‘force’ us to do anything (or the rest of creation, for that matter).

I do think laws and ‘regulations’ are (for want of a better word) necessary, but I think most would agree that too many laws about every little detail would simply not work…

I think we influence each other all the time (not just some of the time). In big ways and small ways. In explicit ways and implicit ways. We pick up ways of talking, dressing and acting from those around us… Among other things, this means we should consider others whenever we act – which is all the time…

Your last question I’m unclear about… What do you mean by ‘object’?

Ethics, ethics, ethics.

I haven’t really got time to fully delve into this but want to put my oar in:

The way I see it there are two primary ways of approaching ethics; top down and bottom up.

The top down approach is to assume that someone or something ‘makes’ it right or wrong to do something (i.e. God, a book, your parents, etc).

The bottom up approach is to assume that we’re made of atoms and we’ve somehow ended up having to coexist with lots of other people and other species and that we basically make up our own ethics as more information comes to light.

The problem I see with the top down approach is that when any adjustments need to be made to your ethics (which, if you look back historically, they often do) you inevitably end up using the bottom up approach anyway but you lag behind.

An example of this is that a bottom up approach to ethics might start with the premise that it’s not good to cause suffering to other people. Using this basic premise we can easily look at issues like personal drug usage or homosexuality and if we see that no harm is being done to anyone else it gets a very low priority on the scale of morals.

From the top down approach you are trying to adhere to morals – many of them perfectly useful today (they must have been good for something otherwise that culture might not have survived) – that have been created by different people (yes, I realise you think it’s really from God) from another time in another culture and you end up with a massive conflict between what would seem like common sense in the modern day context and what is now outdated but written in black and white.

We all change our ethics as the context of our lives or environment change. The difference I see is that there is a greater lag when you are trying to hold on to a top down ethic and when the change finally comes it requires a sudden jolt (like a tectonic earthquake) where one slightly-more-liberal group must split off (or ‘reform’) from the conservative members of your group. Please not that these kinds of jolts don’t require religion to be involved – just a method of top-downing existing ethical standards or ideas.

I think that we all end up and roughly the same place with regard to ethics in society but that the friction is caused by dogma where that dogma doesn’t allow people to use reason to determine how they should live.


My stance on the issues above?
Cigarette smoke: If it hurts others don’t do it – it’s rude and harmful.
Sex: Get over it already – it’s something living organisms do for a living and most of our hangups about it are derived from guilt caused by religions in the first place.
Swearing: Again, get over it. It’s just words and unless those words are threatening to harm others it’s just a matter of taste.
Boobies: Get over it – are you distracted by ‘man-boobies’ too?

I think that the latter three are real issues that we as a society need to get to the root of but not because they are wrong in themselves; because we have conditioned ourselves to react in a certain way and have placed artificial taboos on certain topics or words.

There might be a very valid reason why – as biological creatures trying to exist in a society – we should suppress sexual urges or images of sex that might cause distraction but this needs to be a conversation held from a bottom up approach (no pun intended) because arguing from your particular divine revelation is far less convincing to most of us than is observational evidence.

Oh and for those of you who believe the “apple/fruit” story take some time to think through the logical implications of a god who knows the future and who has the power to do anything and presumably doesn’t actually need our companionship or worship who decides to set Adam and Eve up (why else would you create the temptation in the first place?) in a move that will cause all of the suffering we see today.

If it still makes sense go back and think about it again.

Smoking – don’t impose. Let smokers have their own place (preferably enclosed as I get fed up in cafes, etc., finding that the outside seats are denied me because of smokers – enclosure would also help concentrate the experience for them).

As you know, I see religious ceremony and prayer the same way – don’t impose it on others.

Swearing – Germaine Greer was arrested in NZ in the early 70s for say “bullshit” in a lecture. Obviously values change.

Incidentally, Pinker makes the point that swearing is natural and essential. Different cultural groups select words which are actually more offensive to the group. Religious people will use words like “Christ”, Jesus” “Mother of Mary”, etc., etc. Other groups may prefer to use words related to body functions because they see them as more offensive. (There’s a great Google lecture by Pinker on this which carries a warning on the use of explicit language – unusual for a scientific lecture).

Topless bathing – absolutely no problem.

I guess with most things its a matter of not imposing one’s own values on others. Sometimes this makes decisions easy. Other times its difficult (especially when in the midst of another culture or in the middle of a change in values).

Interesting comments Damian and Ken,

I resonate with your dichotomy between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ ethics. I’m tempted to suggest a ‘both’ approach… :)
But indeed, I would say that what we see in, for example, the book of Proverbs is exactly that kind of ‘bottom-up’ kind of teaching. It’s the kind of wisdom (that, btw, is the genre of proverbs – ‘wisdom literature’) that ‘bubbles up’, as it were, from the practical, down-to-earth, experience of those who have been around the merry-go-round a few times, and are able to share with others… Things we hear and we say, ‘Yep, I’ve seen that before. Life is indeed like that…’ For example:

“He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, but he who heeds reproof gets understanding.” 15:32 (people who won’t listen to others advice will find life harder than those who do)
“As a man thinks, so is he.” 23:7 (our way of thinking –however we’ve arrived at it– has this durn tendency to affect how we live)

My list was meant to provoke thought and discussion, not to simplistically suggest how I feel about each one (as if my answer to each one was “always wrong – no matter what, where or when!”) :)

As you seem to suggest, the ‘answers’ to those questions get very detailed and intricate very quickly…

And your interpretation of the Eden story is more literalistic than many fundamentalist Christians I know! :)

Thanks. Your comments on swearing get toward the heart of this very complex and multi-faceted issue. Swearing can often be offensive. This is so commonly recognised that there are many places it is not tolerated (many classrooms and/or courtrooms, not to mention dinner tables, retirement homes, funerals, etc.). I myself am not much offended by swearing. I think it can reveal a lazy vocabulary, though. I have received genuine and heart-felt compliments that included ‘swear-words’ (“Dale, you’re one of the coolest f***ing guys I know…”), and it would seem odd to find offense there… On the other hand, I’ve had very cold, rude and hurtful things said to me which used no ‘swear-words.’ :)

Interestingly, (and hopefully obviously!) the Bible (for example) doesn’t, of course, mention or refer at all to these ‘swear words’ that many find offensive in many modern contexts (not all modern contexts, of course). It couldn’t of course. One verse that has been taken to speak about ‘naughty words’ says something like “Let no unwholesome speech come from your mouth, but only words that build-up”, etc. This is not implying that some combinations of letters (words) are ‘bad’ and others are ‘good’; and you should only use those combinations of letters which are found in the ‘good’ category… The advice/exhortation it’s giving has to do with being considerate of others and using your mouth/words to help them, not hurt them. In other words, the exhortation would imply that the context would determine what is good or not…

As a pastor to youth, my advice to them is that it’s not so much that ‘swear words’ are ‘evil’, but it’s more that everything we say (not just some words) has the possibility to help or hurt – to build or tear down – to affirm or offend. Pretty basic, really…

The same kind of fluidity could be said for the other examples, I think. Topless bathing. In some contexts: common and utterly harmless; in other contexts: offensive and/or immodest. Funny, huh?


The character (ethic) of a person either makes them attractive or toxic to others.
So, what makes a person toxic?
Hate, anger, bad mouthing others, violence (word and deed), stealing, being out of control due to substance abuse, murder, wanting another’s possessions for one’s self, misrepresenting the facts to deny another person’s justice, disrespectful of others (especially within one’s own family), eating too much, having sex with someone else’s partner especially without the other partner knowing, having sex willy nilly, being fickle, disrespecting the source of your own being and giving the credit to yourself for knowing better. . . even thinking about doing any of those things listed above.
Apart from not doing those things listed above, what else makes a person less toxic?
Love (agape, storge, eros, philia), joy (that’s more than being happy), peace (inner and outer), patience and endurance, doing kind and good things for others, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, forgiveness and exuding hope, standing firm under pressure without reacting with vengeance . . .
The first list is naturally pleasurable but popular enough to cause concern, although temporarily satisfying are generally abhorrent to others. The second set of qualities are mainly boring (because they’re hard and inconvenient to do consistently) and a bit prissy, and some tend to encourage ridicule, being pretty uncool since few others try to maintain them.

Not That I would ever wear that type of T-Shirt myself and generally try not to pay too much attention to them when I am out and about, But I have a thought – I have T-Shirts with a Christian message/picture/theme on them. While I may find the Porn-ish t-shirts offensive, I don’t see how I can ask people not to wear them when I know there must be others out there thay may find my T-shirts offensive too.

I guess where I am heading is that in the “grand scheme of t-shirts” I figure I like to wear what I like so I should be tolerent of others wearing what they like :)

Interesting stuff. Toxic is an interesting way of putting it…

Thanks for the visit and comment! Tolerance is an interesting notion (probably worth it’s own post). First, if I tolerate something, it means (necessarily) that I don’t like or agree with it. If I liked and agreed with it, I certainly wouldn’t call that ‘tolerance’.
So, I’m all for tolerance. If we didn’t tolerate every thing that we didn’t like or agree with… well… that’d stink, huh?
But the difficult reality is that it’s just not ethical to tolerate everything. And, in practice, nobody at all tolerates everything.
So there are a) things I agree with, enjoy and therefore have no need to tolerate , b) things I don’t agree with, or enjoy but I tolerate and c) things I don’t agree with or enjoy and don’t tolerate.
The question is, where do we draw the ‘line’ (btw, I don’t really like the idea of ‘drawing lines’) between those things we ‘tolerate’ and things we don’t?

Sorry, Bex, that’s not all aimed at you, it’s just your comment made me think of it… Something tells me that your Christian T-shirt would be put in category ‘a’ or ‘b’ and rarely or never in ‘c’. A porn-ish t-shirt, however would far more often be put in category ‘c’, though of course it would also be found in ‘b’ and ‘a’…

Make sense?


drawing a line ____________ :)

I am not really for drawing lines either.

The categories you suggest make a lot of sense (and could be taken further than T-shirts:) )– but what we would put into each one would/could be different for different people. For you (or me) the aligned ABC you have suggested would be highly likely huh? But for some the list could be reversed

I would agree that it would not be right to tolerate everything – for example things like poverty, child abuse (or any kind of abuse)

I have a bit of a different outlook on the whole thing. I have made it a priority in life to submit my heart and mind to God’s will, and to the power of his Holy Spirit, so that the things he likes will be the things I like, and the things that offend him will be the things that offend me.

I don’t see decisions on what should and shouldn’t be belching out peoples’ mouths, or written on their t-shirts, as merely human opinions grounded in rigorous moral philosophy. I think some opinions are more divinely inspired than others, and those who hold less divine opinions are well aware of that fact. Choosing to smoke obnoxiously in public, or wear obnoxious t-shirts, is a way of trying to feel better about one’s failings. The more people can wear those things without evoking a noticeable reaction, the more they will feel comfortable with those things being present in their lives.

I make a bit of a habit of speaking up if something offends me. And whenever I do I am amazed at the dynamic that results. Whether the amazed parents of the child crashing his toys on the floor at the back of the church, the sympathetic mother of the pre-pubescent girl with sexual innuendo all over her shirt, the lads at the back of the movie theatre who pulled their heads in when I told them to – all seemed very aware of what behaviour was and as not appropriate, and actually seemed relieved when I assumed the authority and leadership to stamp out the trash.

I swear that when you pull up a young fellow who’s acting the goat, and you do it in a way that is both respectful and authoritative, the end result is them gaining more respect for you, and also for themselves because you are actually saying you expect more from them. You expect them to man up and take responsibility. Your are communicating that you think they are capable, that character is still something they can possess. How much more is this an affirmation of a person than saying “that’s just your opinion” no matter how much both parties know the behaviour is bad?

Thanks A.J.,
Especially your last few sentences point to some points I was hoping would arise in the conversation…

It’s a great point; responsibility and respect. We are responsible for even the smallest of actions, and are either respecting our selves (bodies included) and others – or not…

Good stuff…


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