Insects or people: which are more important?

A certain real estate developer bought a piece of land beside a natural reserve at a high price. It applied to the Town Planning Board to develop a comprehensive residential project on the land. In the hearing, the representative of a certain local conservation group objected to the development of residences in the area. The reason was that a species of firefly unique to Hong Kong was found there. Developing the area would cause the firefly species to go extinct.

Party A: The Town Planning Board should approve the project. The interests of humans certainly take priority over that of insects. The developer acquired the land through legal means and at a high price. They have sound reasons to develop the land and should not be intervened. The view held by Party A focuses on the interests of humans. In terms of consequence, they believe that all things that benefit humans are right, even if it means sacrificing the environment. (resulting consequences)

Party B: The Town Planning Board should not approve the project. Developing the project would lead to the extinction of precious firefly species. Humans and other creatures should coexist on this earth. We have the moral obligation to conserve the fireflies. Environmental conservation should not make way for commercial interests.

In Party B’s view, the eco-system comes first. Nature is irreplaceable and bears intrinsic value. Humans have the obligation to conserve the nature even if it sometimes means sacrificing economic interests. (intrinsic values)


New Senior Secondary Ethics and Religious Studies Introductory Learning and Teaching Materials for the Secondary 3 Ethics Studies Lesson Three

★Distinguish good from bad by the consequence of an action, whether it leads to benefit, drawbacks, good or bad consequence.

This school of theory advocates that an action, on its own, is neither good nor bad. The morality of the action is determined by the motive and the consequence. For example, lying itself is neither good nor bad. Its morality is determined by whether

Ethics – Learning to judge

When we face moral dilemmas, we may follow our own emotions, gut feelings or seek the views of others to make

judgements. Other than that, we can also borrow from ethics theories and use them as thinking tools to help us clarify the issue and make independent and rational decisions. In this lesson we shall introduce some thinking tools from normative ethics. They are essential and basic knowledge for making moral judgements.

Tool 1: Teleology


one is lying to help and benefit others. Actions that benefit others are morally sound, and as such are good and ethical. In other words, ‘good or evil’ is the most

fundamental concept for moral actions. An action is defined as morally sound, and thus right, because the action is ‘good’; an action is defined as morally unsound, and thus wrong, because the action is ‘evil’. The predominant theory in teleology is Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism specifies that: actions that bring the greatest ‘good’ to the largest number of people are right and morally sound. ‘Good’ can be replaced by

‘wellbeing’ or ‘benefit’, and thus actions that bring the greatest amount of wellbeing or benefit to the largest number of people are right and morally sound.

Supporters of teleology use ‘good or evil’ to determine the morality of an action.

Good is right and morally sound; and evil is wrong and morally unsound. As to how good or evil is determined, a process of weighing is required. Since actions may not be 100% good or 100% evil, determination of good or evil involves weighing and calculating good and evil. If the good ‘out-weighs’ the evil, then the action is right and morally sound; if the evil ‘out-weighs’ the good, then the action is wrong and morally unsound.

Because of a need to weigh good against evil, gains against losses, benefits against drawbacks, good against bad, teleologists tend to determine the morality of an action by referring to its consequences. An action itself is neither right nor wrong.

Whether it is ethical or not is determined by the expected result or the result. Murder in itself cannot be determined as unethical, because if we know that the motive is to protect one’s nation from invasion or to bring about peace, then murder in this case is good, right and morally sound. Ethical actions become the ‘means’ to achieve an end.

To conclude, determining the morality of an action by weighing good against evil is regarded as teleology.

★Determine the morality of an action based on its inherent nature, whether it is inherently right or wrong, good or evil.

The key in deontology is ‘inherent’ and ‘right or wrong’. By ‘inherent’, we mean that the right or wrong of an action is not affected by external factors. The consequence of an action cannot determine whether the action itself is right or wrong. Murder is unethical and wrong. It cannot be ethical although killing a tyrant can bring

Tool 2: Deontology


well-being to the people. Similarly, an action cannot be ethical because of its noble intentions. Lying is wrong in itself. It cannot be a right or ethical action although the lie is told out of love or for the benefit of others. In other words, action is ends in itself. It is not a means that leads to values. The answer of deontology is absolute, not a result of negotiation.

Emmanuel Kant, who first proposed deontology, advocated that moral laws must be:

(1) Objective or universal – meaning that morality is not affected by time or geographical location, i.e. one cannot say that murder is unethical today but

acceptable in the ancient times; or that murder is wrong in China but right in western nations. Ethical standards must be applicable to any and all places. (2) Absolute – meaning that moral standards cannot be conditional, i.e. effective only under certain circumstances, such as with general public consent. Right or wrong is non-negotiable, and morality must not be compromised. If something is right, it is right despite what everyone else thinks! (3) Moral judgement should not be based on experience or information. Information only states facts, or benefits and drawbacks. Ethics deals with right or wrong, and is not related to personal or collective experience. (4) Intrinsic or self-regulatory – moral laws must be initiated by the intrinsic decision of an individual. It is a call for rationality, not to be dominated by outside authorities, trends or forces, or influenced by subjective emotion. Only then the moral subject can manifest through one’s moral conscience, not to be hindered by personal emotion or outside threat.

Deontology focuses on the inherent rightness or wrongness of the action, and emphasises the unique meaning of morality. It does not confuse moral values with facts. If one employs ethical rationality to commit murder on one’s volition, then one is in the wrong. The act of murder is inherently unethical. It is not limited by time, space, culture, or by consequence. There is no room for negotiation.


Deontology and teleology offer two ways through which one can provide ethical reasons to support one’s moral judgements. In terms of the judgement made, there is no conflict between the two. Teleologist says murder is unethical because the result is evil. Deontologist believes murder is unethical because the act of murder is inherently wrong. In terms of reasoning, they take completely different direction. Conceptually they are incompatible and non-negotiable. It must be one or the other. Any integration must result in the sacrifice of one side of reasoning. We can say that murder is wrong but it is good, but why? If asked about the ethical reasons, we could only pick one of the above two.

★What character qualities should a person ideally have? What values deserves our pursuit and preservation?

Theory of virtue is the oldest topic in the study of ethics. What counts as a

morally sound person? Both Confucius and Plato examined what virtues a ‘gentleman’

(junzi , ‘君子’ in Chinese) or a man of wisdom should possess. Theory of virtue asks what character and integrity should be found in an ideal person, or a person we respect or would model ourselves after. A morally sound person or moral sound behaviour will manifest and promote these noble character and integrity.

Benevolence, love, filial piety, kindness, honesty, bravery, righteousness, and loyalty are traditionally widely recognized virtues. They are the character that an ideal person should possess. Character is an internal quality of people. The actualization of character is behaviour. Filial piety is a human virtue. Taking care of one’s parents is the actualization of the virtue. Virtues can be described to be the core substance of behaviour.

Tool 3: Theory of Virtue; Theory of Value


Virtues are embodied in people, realized through their behaviour. Values are qualities that humans pursue, affirm, and strive to preserve.

Humans have developed a diversity of academic disciplines that examine values.

In economics we pursue efficiency; in aesthetics we pursue beauty; in religion and philosophy we pursue truths and meanings; in ethics we pursue the good. We can say that virtue is good in itself, and that right actions are good. Is there any implied meaning in the good? If we define the good as something we want to pursue or preserve, would your ‘good’ be different from mine?

The good that we pursue are all different: well-being, health, life, freedom, love, justice, heaven, peace, democracy, rule of law, stability, prosperity, happiness….

These are all values worth our pursuit. Once there is any clash between virtues or values, a choice must be made Values that different people treasure can serve as a good starting point for discussion. Such kinds of debates may not always arrive at a consensus, but the thought and discussion processes may help people gain a deeper understanding about the concept of values and the behaviour they actualize.

Think about it

“Life is precious, but love is more highly valued. But for the sake of liberty, both can be sacrificed.”

Do you agree? How would you rank life, love, and freedom?


Normative ethics provides a foundation for which people can discuss whether actions are right or wrong, and the importance of virtue and values. Base on this foundation, we will be able to answer some basic questions of normative ethics:

(1) What are the reasons we adopt to judge an action to be moral or not?

(2) What are the virtues an ideal person should possess?

(3) What deserves our pursuit and preservation?


Let’s judge

Try using the above tools of moral judgement to provide reasons for your analysis of the following cases, then make your judgement.

Crossroads: Automatic Teller Machine

Wai was withdrawing cash at the automatic teller machine (ATM) of a bank when something unexpected happened. He had made a withdrawal of $400 but

the ATM machine dispensed $4,000. He looked at the receipt; the listed amount was still $400. Wai checked his account through online banking and found that only $400 had been deducted from his account. He

pocketed the money, thinking that the bank would soon discover the missing amount and ask him to return it. However, several weeks had passed and there was no call from the bank. Wai was eager to spend this lucky money on something he liked. He was much struggled. Should he return the money? Emotionally speaking, he wanted to keep it and it would be very troublesome to report to the police. However, morally speaking, he had a vague sense that spending the money is stealing.

Do you think Wai should return the money? Explain your moral judgements.

Twisting the baby’s leg

Your car crashes into a tree in a forest at a winter night. The car breaks down and your friends are badly injured. As it is midnight, there is no one on the road, so you run along it till you find an isolated house. An old woman and a baby live in the house. The baby is sleeping sweetly in the crib. There is no phone, but a car in the garage. You ask desperately to borrow it, and explain the situation to her. However, she doesn’t believe you and is terrified by your desperation. She locks herself in the kitchen, leaving you alone with the baby. You knock on the door but she does not respond. You cannot find the car key. Then it occurs to you that she may change her mind and tell you where the car key is if you were to twist the baby’s leg.

(Adapted from: The View from Nowhere, by Thomas Nagel)

Should you do it? Explain your moral judgement.


The choice between one and four

You are a doctor. There are four patients who are seriously hurt and sent to the hospital. Each needs a separate organ: a kidney, a liver, a heart, and so forth. You can save their lives if you remove a heart, a liver, kidneys, and so forth from a healthy person and distribute them to the four patients. At the same time, a healthy woman is in

Room 418. She is in the hospital for routine check. From her test results, you know that she is perfectly healthy and her organs are suitable for the four patients. If you do nothing, of course, she will survive; the other patients will die. The other four patients can be saved

only if the woman in Room 418 is cut up and her organs are distributed. In that case, to scarify one person can save four.

(Adapted from The Nature of Morality, page 3-4, by Gilbert Harman)

Should you do that? Explain your moral judgement.



After two-thousand years of work, scholars of ethics have quite thoroughly categorized and analysed the possible problems we may encounter daily. They have offered different tools and suggestions for our reference. Ethics is a discipline of study, allowing us to propose ethical reasons and make judgements through strict thinking processes and inferences. Students interested in ethics may read up on relevant literature, borrow from the wisdom of our forbearers, and understand the people and things around us from the angle of ethics to enrich our lives.


Reference material for teachers (Lesson Three)

Class objectives

 Show students that ethics includes many issues covering both personal and social aspects. These issues have been studied by many individuals. Learning ethics helps students grasp the focus and method of analysis of various issues, helping them develop their own viewpoints quickly and systematically.

 Introduce common thinking tools of ethics, i.e. utilitarianism, deontology and value theory.

 Demonstrate how these tools may help us effectively analyse various issues.

 Demonstrate how the mastery and application of these tools may help students in their studies of other subjects.

 Through dealing with two questions involving ethical dilemmas, show students how dilemmas can be resolved, i.e. through reflection, one should learn to uphold justice even if it means suffering losses. It is the shouldering of responsibilities that makes us human.

In document New Senior Secondary Ethics and Religious Studies Introductory Learning and Teaching Materials for the Secondary 3 Ethics Studies (Page 31-41)

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