Can ethical progress follow the same approach as medical progress?



Many dictionary definitions are descriptions of actions, processes or purpose:

  • The goal of a car manufacturer is to designs, builds and sells cars
  • The objective of Science is the building and organization of knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about nature and the universe
  • A charity is an organization set up to provide and raise money for those in need
  • The purpose of Medicine is the prevention, diagnosing, alleviation or curing of disease

Modern medicine has been hugely successful. It is estimated that penicillin, one of the family of antibiotics, has saved at least 200 million lives since 1942, the smallpox vaccination 530 million lives, and blood transfusions 1,094 million. These are just some of the treatments provided by modern medicine. They contribute to an overall increase in average life span. The measurement and record keeping between countries varies and deteriorates as you look back in time. Some of the most reliable data comes from England and shows that the average lifespan between 1542 and 1850 fluctuated around 30 and 40 years, and it is now over 80.

The Oxford Dictionaries defines ethics as “Moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conducting of an activity.”  But the problem with this definition is that it does not identify which moral principles. What one person believes is a moral principle another person may think is immoral. Medicine does not have this problem. People may find it hard to agree what health is, but it is much easier to define illness. So perhaps this approach could be taken with ethics. In the same way that medicine is defined as the prevention, diagnosing, alleviation or curing of disease, Ethics or Morality can be defined as:

  • The prevention, diagnosis, alleviation or remedy conditions that damage the well-being of conscious beings.

Given that defining medicine by its goal has worked well and there has been enormous medical progress then why shouldn’t the same approach work for ethics?