Ethics – strictly speaking – is the study of morals and moral behaviour. Unfortunately, since we all make moral choices every day, we tend to think of ourselves as ‘experts’ in ethics, and think that our own opinion somehow counts as an ethical argument. It usually doesn’t! You’ve all had colds and done mental maths, neither of these makes you an expert in human biology or statistical analysis. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ethics is easy or common sense.

We are going to ask questions which address ethical relativism (are there any objective, universal ethical rules, or does every moral judgement depend on the circumstances?), why the study of ethics is important, and ethical consequentialism (whether we should consider the action or the result in coming to an ethical judgement).

To kick us off, here is an old ethical classic:

The Trolley Problem

Some reading in ethics for groups:

When no-one wins

The torture option

The Lifeboat

Duties done

Bank error in your favour

Michio Kaku is a renowned, and, frankly, pretty cool contemporary scientist. Here we find him here speculating on the future of the world of genetics and science. (Check out the Extras section for a similar book recommendation). The question that remains unanswered, but which is vital to this whole discussion is: are any of these experiments, as he describes them, ethical? Is this something that we should be doing?

This clip from the 80s hit Jurassic Park, had Jeff Goldblum as the maverick scientist questioning the ethics of what the Park’s creators have done. His last sentence is a movie classic!

Dr. Kaku identifies some threats to humanity, should scientists chose to work on these areas. However this kind of technology will soon be available to students (how scary is that?) and more and more people  will have the ability to create DNA and other genetic material; so should we teach people to be ethical? How do we deal with the rogue mad scientist? Is it even possible to teach  people to be ethical?

Test your own ethical decision-making processes:



This TED talk deals with Charity and how we have been doing it all wrong.

Here’s a Scientific Ethics moment – with a big oops!

Read My Rings: The Oldest Living Tree Tells All


An ethical conundrum:

What issues are raised by this recent advertisement?

Here is her justification for taking part in the campaign:

But then what about this conundrum?

Why do we find others’ troubles entertaining? Think about the popularity of Soap Operas, or the prevalence of violence in video games. Are these linked?


If you are presenting or writing about ethical decisions, you should read this chapter from Thompson’s An Introduction to Philosophy and EthicsEthical Arguments. Try to read and digest it properly before coming back to me with questions – it will take you an hour or so of reflective reading…. The cover and copyright pages from the book are included for your referencing purposes. I have copies of the book I can lend, or you can buy your own here.

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