For the past two years, I have had a serious interest in the study of moral philosophy. For those of you who might not know what it is, moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that is mainly concerned with ethics – or the concepts of right and wrong conduct. What this means is that whenever a person is studying moral philosophy, or is called a moral philosopher, the work they do is either defending or recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.

Because human beings are social animals, whenever we do anything, our actions tend to affect the people around us. And since this effect is inevitable, it is important that the conduct between people be regulated and checked to ensure that the effects they have are not negative.

This is where the study of moral philosophy comes in. Because human beings are inherently different, our beliefs on whether conduct is good or bad (or right or wrong) will also be different. It is therefore the duty of moral philosophers to study human conduct, and come up with ways of judging the goodness or badness of conduct.

Unfortunately, though, coming up with universal ways of judging conduct is not as easy as it sounds. The inherent differences we have as humans make it difficult for us to agree on the criteria to be used when judging a person’s conduct, and this has a way of causing a lot of problems. But, as troubling as it may be, this is also one of the things that make studying moral philosophy as interesting as it is.

Because we do not always agree on the criteria to be used when judging the morality of certain actions, a lot of debates have been had on how people need to act in order to be seen as good or bad people. These debates have helped us dig deeper into the natures of both good and evil, and we have grown, at least morally that is, as people, because of them.

A good example of such debates is from earlier this year, where many on social media voiced their opinion on right and wrong. In a video, a teacher at a Cape Town based girl’s high school, Sans Souci, slaps a learner in her class for the wrongful conduct she believed the learner was engaged in. While there are many other things we can discus in the video – things like whether or not the teacher was right for speaking to the learner in the manner in which she did, or whether the student was right for reacting the way she did, etc. – the number one point that a lot of people have been discussing is whether or not the teacher was right for slapping the student.

For many people, it goes without saying that physically harming other people – i.e. slapping them – should always be seen as wrong. But, should it always be seen that way? When judging if whether the teacher was right or wrong for doing what she did, should we just look at the act of slapping in isolation; or should we also consider the actions leading up to it? And if we choose to do the latter, would we be right in suggesting that there are actions that permit the slapping of another individual?

Some claim that the act was justified because it was one in which the teacher was attempting to discipline the learner; that the teacher only did it as a last resort in a situation where a learner was being hostile towards her. Others believe that, regardless of how the learner behaved at that particular moment, the teacher, as the adult in the situation, should have behaved differently.

The decision of which of the two argument is the right one is one that has sparked a lot of debates around how teachers and learners need to behave in school environments and, based on the way things are going, it looks like it is one whose conclusion we might not reach any time soon. Questions around corporal punishment have resurfaced, and the conclusions around the issue are as diverse as the people discussing them. Learner behaviour in schools has also become a big topic of discussion since the video surfaced, and more videos showing the questionable behaviours that learners usually display in school settings have surfaced.

This is one of many discussions that have taken place around morality and ethics over the past couple of months, and since no solid conclusion has been reached as of yet, it seems as though there are more on the way.

Another area in which moral philosophy finds great prominence, since it deals with judging the rightness and wrongness of human conduct, is the law. The law, by its nature, was created to ensure that humans in a society act in such a way that their actions do not cause any harm to those around them. To do this, laws that categorise conduct as either good or bad have to be written and agreed to by everyone in that society. But, since we all have differences, it is impossible for everyone to agree on the laws that are written.

In the end, the question to ask is: is there a universal way of defining if an action is good or bad? This is an answer I am not prepared to answer as of yet. But, there is no doubt that, since we are beings whose actions continue to affect the people around us and the environment we live in, coming up with systems of determining the goodness and badness of people’s actions is something that we need to do.


Tell us: can you think of other debates where people disagree about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’?