On Ethics – Part 1 – Just a point of view?

September 8, 2006

Am I nuts?

Sales are down!I’m an impulsive person who easily gets in trouble. Consider this – I’m doing the “On Reality” essays. Those writings are mushrooming into all kinds of controversial issues. Now, I’m heading into another “deep” issue – Ethics – just on the whim of my mind. I’ve got no real good reason for doing either series. Both subjects – reality and ethics – have been on my mind for most of my life. But like many of you, I never really thought about either that much. Now that I actually do think about it, it’s a different matter. I keeps me up at night. It occupies my mind. I’m compulsive.

The reason I got into a series about ethics is quite trivial. Today, I read a pretty ordinary story about a photographer who questioned the ethics of street photography after being challenged by some one she shot. I’ll quote and reference the story later in this post. After mulling it over, I decided on this Ethics series as a complement to my Reality series. Get a life, Karl.

My starting assumption is that Ethics is another of these “self evident” truths that are not – just like Reality. Many of us take for granted we know its meaning. But after scratching the surface, a different view soon arises. Ethics is just a point of view. None of us think about it in exactly the same way. As we shall see ethics play an influential role in our lifes. This influence is sometimes good. It might mean, say, a fair justice system. Or the influence is bad – such as serving as an inspiration or excuse for race crimes or even major wars.

I’ve quickly found that ethics is a far more complex issue than reality. As with Reality, Ethics can easily lead us into danger. Serious danger.

Here is a simple example. I don’t really want to sound political, but here goes. George W. got to have a totally different concept of ethics than a) the rest of the World and b) an overwhelming majority of Americans. He lies. He condones torture. He imprisons people illegally. He fights for his right to illegally wiretap and do surveillance of anyone. He lies about the reasons to sacrifice thousands of lives in a non-winnable war. This is the short list but it serves as my introduction to Ethics. And Ethics testyes, I do realize there are plenty of others as bad as or even far worse than Mr. Bush. But he is (or wishes to be) the leader of the World.

Like Reality, Ethics is not a new subject. Discussions of Ethics go way back. There is a fair degree of common sense agreement of what ethics are, to many of us. It is the process/rules of doing the right thing as well as the knowing what the right thing is. Not knowing the right thing is bad. Not doing the right thing is bad. Those who do not conform to or agree with the value of Ethics are sometimes labeled as sociopaths. Being moral and being ethical is about the same thing – being Good.

So far so good. This must be easy. But hold it – let’s look at what I said. “Right”. “Wrong”. “Moral”. “Immoral”. “Ethical”. “Unethical”. “Sociopath”. Or “Good”. These are just words. All of them are subject to interpretation and disagreement. That’s what we will discuss. Things won’t stay easy.

There’ll be two major parts – the first one is looking at ethics in general. The second part will look at ethics in photography. After all, this blog is about art and photography, not philosophy. Or politics. This post will just lay some groundwork. Much more to come.

As usual, a few comments on the images in this post

Illustrating very abstract ideas such as reality and ethics in a relevant manner is not easy. There are no photographs of either. We don’t know what either looks like. So adding illustrations to my narrative is comparable to adding yet another abstract layer. But I try.

The two images above are just a couple of light hearted cartoons. Can ‘t take ourselves too seriously. Then, the two photos accompanying Jodie’s article below are mine. I did not want to mess with her rights, so I choose a couple of street scenes I’ve shot. These are related to the ideas in the article. The rest are portraits of the actors mentioned in the text. First comes Plato, then Socrates. Kant is followed by Nietzsche and Wagner. I’m sure you recognize the last one.

A few quotes to get us going

Let’s define one kind of non-ethical person – the sociopath:

“Individuals with this disorder have little regard for the feeling and welfare of others.” ….. “may exhibit criminal behavior. They may not work. If they do work, they are frequently absent or may quit suddenly. They do not consider other people’s wishes, welfare or rights. They can be manipulative and may lie to gain personal pleasure or profit. They may default on loans, fail to provide child support, or fail to care for their dependents adequately. High risk sexual behavior and substance abuse are common. Impulsiveness, failure to plan ahead, aggressiveness, irritability, irresponsibility, and a reckless disregard for their own safety and the safety of others are traits of the antisocial personality.” Source: here

Ouch – that’s sure bad. No doubt many of us “normal” people have experienced people like that. I have, to my sorrow. But look closely at what the quote says. How many of us can honestly say we have not, perhaps, done SOME of those horrible things? At some point? Be honest, now. Immediately things get murky.

Let’s check a few other quotes (Source: here ):

Albert Schweitzer: “Ethics, too, are nothing but reverence for life. This is what gives me the fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing life, and that destroying, injuring, and limiting life are evil.”

George Bernard Shaw: Do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

HH the Dalai Lama: Consider the following. We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.”

Mark Twain: Always do right–this will gratify some and astonish the rest.”

Omar N. Bradley: Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

T. S. Eliot: The highest form of treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

William Penn: To do evil that good may come of it is for bunglers in politics as well as morals.”

Perhaps my favorite one is that of the good General Bradley above. He died in 1981 but his statement is oh so true today. But for the rest of it, again, look closely. I don’t see much more than largely empty words although expressed cleverly. Perhaps I’m dense. Where’s the meat?

The article that was my trigger

Here is a link to the article I read this AM, but the full text follows except I skipped the picture in question. There is a link to Flickr where the picture is published together with a great deal of comments you might find interesting.

“A cheap shot at street photography



CAREFUL who you photograph – you could be assaulted. Or at least be ordered to hand over $5.


Guy in crowdJodie is a Melbourne photographer with an attractive folio of work who spotted a chap sitting on the steps at Flinders Street Station, so she snapped him. She was startled by his reaction. “He came over and said that I had to give him $5 for the picture I just took of him,” she says. “I told him I didn’t have $5 and things started to get slightly ugly. He then told me to give him the film. When I told him it was digital he got more pissed and I deleted the photo – well one of them – in front of him.

“I (moved) away and he started abusing me with all kinds of insults, telling me he would smash my camera in my face.”

Jodie escaped but was faced with a dilemma: should she upload the photograph to her Flickr website? She did, but with the reluctant subject’s face blacked out (follow link HERE). Now she wants to know if she did the wrong thing.

You might say that $5 is a reasonable fee to pay a model. You wouldn’t get Megan Gale for five bucks. But perhaps paying an angry person in this situation is tantamount to admitting that you have done something wrong.

We have explored the legalities of street photography in the past but this is more an issue of ethics and etiquette. Should photographers always ask before snapping just because it is polite? Or does that destroy the spontaneity? Many of the greatest photographs ever taken are of unsuspecting subjects.

But another issue arises in the context of discussing Jodie’s picture, and that is to do with the pornography of poverty. This is a term coined to damn aid agencies that use photographs of misery to boost their fund-raising efforts or to describe the tourist in India who takes pictures of crippled beggars because they are so “colourful and exotic”.Lady in crowd

Marshall McLuhan called the photograph “the brothel without walls” – the most voyeuristic medium of them all. But while we understand erotic voyeurism, it is not so easy to understand the appeal of poverty as a fit subject for photography.

The simplest explanation is that seeing photographs of paupers excites schadenfreude – smug pleasure in the misfortune of others. Or perhaps pity. But these explanations don’t stand up to scrutiny. Schadenfreude is the intense pleasure you feel when you see two Mercedes collide. And pity does not attract – it repels.

The poverty-as-art photograph is always a picture of a stranger. It is unthinkable that we should photograph someone we know in misery. Occasionally a photographer breaks through the anonymity and forces us to get to know the subject, as Eugene Smith did with his photographs of the Minamata victims – the people poisoned by mercury in their environment, above. Smith’s photographs are both great art and a compelling document. He crossed the line from observer to participant and was severely beaten by thugs hired by the offending company. But this does not describe the tourist photographs of the beggars in India. As McLuhan says, this type of photography turns people into things.


Plato looking downSmith told his students: “Humanity is worth more than a picture of humanity that serves no purpose other than exploitation.”

The Imaging rule is this: it’s OK to take a spontaneous photograph of any person who looks as though they would be able to take a picture of us in another time and place. We draw the line at snapping people who look as though they will never be able to scrape together enough money to buy a camera.

Jodie did the right thing. She agonised over the rights and wrongs. She was not indifferent to the implications of what she was doing.”

As I said, this is not a remarkable event, nor even a very good article. The article actually contains two distinct parts – the first covers the event it self, then comes the “pornography of poverty” tirade with its absurd “Imaging rule” conclusion.

As to the first part, the ethics issue, to me, is very simple: It is perfectly ethical to shoot a picture of anything wherever it is legal to do so, unless there are common sense reasons not to shoot, such as it might endanger someone. The man demanding money was Socrates before executing himselfsimply a jerk. The photographer does not have to destroy any pictures or paint out the face of anyone.

If the picture is used commercially, then the rules are different but that was not the case.

The second part of the article makes an ethical issue out of nothing. It rambles about how you can only ethically shoot people who are on the same ” level” as yourself. What? That would sure make life difficult for National Geographic photographers on assignment in some godforsaken part of the planet. Or taking pictures of Saudi princes. I stand by my statement on ethics in the previous paragraph.

The article raised some pretty trivial ethical issues but they were sufficient to set me off on MY tirade which you are currently reading. It does not take much to set me off like Don Quixote. I do quite a bit of street photography. I’ve been through the same experiences as Jodie above. I believe in standing up for my rights and ethics while using common sense and a smile.

I also do a lot of shooting in private places such as music clubs and bars, as is obvious if you check out my portfolios. That’s an entirely different matter – you better get appropriate permissions. So far, I have never been denied such permissions. Be up front, honest, considerate and friendly. It’s certainly ok to offer something in return, such as a few prints, unless you are on an actual paid assignment. which again is a different story.

Street photography does carry ethical issues. I’ll return to the subject later.

This was a bit of everyday ethics that we photographers deal with all the time. There is much more to our story, though. Let’s go climb a few ivory towers and check out the view.

The philosophers – does it matter what they think?

Kant the scholarEver since studying philosophy in high school, I’ve had nothing but trouble attempting to understand what philosophers talk about. Every time I try to find out what they think about some subject, they seem to talk about something else. But I can’t ignore this wealth of thinking about human conditions. Bear with me. There is a point. A pretty important one.

In ancient Greece a few hundred years BC, there were Socrates and Plato. Both have shaped quite a bit of philosophical thought and influenced other areas as well. Both are credited with “ethical” insights. It seems, though, that Socrates used his ethical thinking to somehow inspire him to view his self inflicted execution as the ethical thing to do. Then Plato seems to have viewed ethics as a way make himself feel good or, then, maybe not. He felt the same way about appetite. Or not. Try this:

“… human well-being (eudaimonia) is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct; the virtues (aretê=‘excellence’) are the requisite skills and character-traits. If Plato’s support for an ethics of happiness seems somewhat subdued that is due to several reasons. First of all, his conception of happiness differs in significant ways from ordinary views. He therefore devotes more time to undermining the traditional understanding of the good life than to describing his own conception. Second, Plato regards happiness as a state of perfection that is hard to comprehend because it is based on metaphysical presuppositions that seem both hazy and out of the realm of ordinary understanding. Hence there is not — as there is in Aristotle — much talk about happiness as a self-sufficient state of the active individual; the emphasis is, rather, on problems and difficulties that need to be solved. Third, Plato’s moral ideals appear both austere and self-abnegating: the soul is to remain aloof from the pleasures of the body; communal life demands the subordination of individual wishes and aims. The difficulties of assessing Plato’s ethical thought are compounded by the fact that it was subject to various modifications during his long life.” Source: here

Quite a mouthful. “Difficulties of assessing Plato’s ethical thought”? Right. Perhaps this ethical thing isn’t so self evident after all. Which is my point so far.

Jumping ahead some 2100 years. Here is Immanuel Kant. His famous view was “it is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible”. A bit cryptic. However, he is a proponent of the deontological view of ethics. This means:

“…. particular kinds of acts are morally wrong because they are inconsistent with the status of a person as a free and rational being, and thus should not be carried out under any circumstances whatsoever. Conversely, acts that further the status of people as free and rational beings should always be carried out, under any circumstances whatsoever.” Source: here

Trying naively to decipher this, it sounds to me like an excuse for the “free and rational” to do whatever they want. I’m not alone in that thought. Let’s check out some real meat:

Wagner looking stern“What is so bad about Kant? According to Peikoff, Kant downgraded the physical world to which we gain access through our senses as a mere “phenomenal” realm. It was nothing but an appearance as compared with the “noumenal” world, which only faith, not logic, could grasp. In ethics, Kant spurned individual happiness as a matter of no moral worth; instead, persons were to subordinate themselves entirely to a duty that bore no relation to their interests as human beings.”

“These doctrines, Peikoff holds, paved the way for Hitler. The Nazis rejected reason – Kant taught that reason can teach us nothing of the world beyond mere appearance. Hitler’s movement demanded that individuals sacrifice themselves for the common good – again, a theme straight out of Kant’s ethics. So pervasive was Kant’s influence. Peikoff argues, that no important group in the Weimar Republic dissented from the baleful doctrines of irrationalism, altruism, and collectivism. The decadent expressionist artists of the left shared the same Kantian irrationalist assumptions as their right-wing detractors. No one in Weimar Germany had the intellectual resources to mount an effective resistance to Hitler, hence his triumph in 1933.”

“Peikoff does not put all the blame for Nazism on Kant; other philosophers, like Plato and Hegel, must take their share of responsibility. But, however implausible it may at first sight have seemed, I was not exaggerating in stating that Peikoff regards the Hitler looking scaredmild-mannered sage of Königsberg as a proto-Nazi. Peikoff goes so far as to say of life in the Nazi concentration camps: “It was the universe that had been hinted at, elaborated, cherished, fought for, and made respectable by a long line of champions. It was the theory and the dream created by all the anti-Aristotelians of Western history.” Source: here

Suddenly the air is a bit chillier. The guys I have been quoting are responsible for Nazism, Hitler and concentration camps? Not all agree with Mr. Peikoff’s quite provocative views. In fact, some completely disagree.

Here are not one but two points.

First, perhaps this ethics/philosophy deal should be viewed with some seriousness. Maybe the questions around Reality, Ethics and Philosophy aren’t just little mind games played by people that matter little, or not at all, to most of us. Maybe these abstract things influence our lives in a major way?

Second, issues about ethics are arguable. People openly disagree on matters. Lively discussions follow. There is also the matter of social stigma. We all like to appear to be nice, law abiding, “ethical” citizens. We seldom brag about cheating on taxes or shoplifting. Rarely do we admit we just loved getting back at that boss of ours by placing a python in his desk drawer. Or talk about that little DUI matter – much overblown as it was.

Yes – Ethics do count

That’s about it for now. I started out with some loose statements such as “Being Good” is ethical. “Being Bad” is not. Then, quickly, things started to slip downhill. Perhaps more than a few of us share some things with those dreaded and very unethical sociopaths? Then the big one. Were scholars such as Plato and Kant inspirations to the deaths of millions of people? Some think so. The quote above by Mr. Peikoff is not unique although highly disputed on theoretical grounds. Such as, it is not fair to blame the creator of an idea if it is misused by some deranged lunatics. Either way, ethical concepts are not clear-cut. They are complex, controversial and influencial to power centers all the way down to the common man.

Kant, Hegel and Plato are not the only philosophers who may have influenced the Nazi murky ideology. Nor is Nazi ideology alone in misusing ethics as a part of manipulating our heritage. Friedrich Nietzsche – viewed as a brilliant philosopher who famously stated “God is dead” – was widely admired by the Nazis, much because of Nietzsche’ Ubermensch theory. Hitler himself said Wagner and his music were great inspirations but took an active interest in Nietzsche as well. Here is my final quote, about Nietzsche:

“Nietzsche, the self-described “Immoralist” and “Anti-Christ,” rejects moral discourse, rational moral principles, and indeed morality altogether. Morality is for “slaves” who are unable or unwilling to seize the power that they want. The (aesthetic) ideal is the Übermensch (Superman or Overman), who is beyond good and evil, who acts on his Will to Power, and who is completely indifferent to the needs, rights, and claims, or existence, of other persons. Grassian presents this as a disagreement over the nature of morality, but it is really a disagreement over whether morality, in any recognizable sense, even exists.” Source: here

Pretty ugly words about someone viewed as a major influence to not only Nazis but also today’s psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers, students, Ayn Rand followers, the French Left Wing and many others.

Now, what does this have to do with photography and art? I believe art is by necessity closely related to values, in particular those of the artist. Values do not exist in a vacuum. They are made up by many individual influences – good, bad, inherited, learnt, forgotten, misrepresented, enforced and invented. Our personal perceptions of Reality and Ethics influence our value systems. Understanding Reality and Ethics means we can create, judge or simply grasp Art and Photography with some rationale. The same goes for life itself.

Thank you



6 Responses to “On Ethics – Part 1 – Just a point of view?”

  1. sureshg said

    What a lovely Blog. I am inspired by your writings. You varied subjects really Interests me. I noticed that that you have passion in Photography. I am working on similar lines as yours using photos as tool. Please visit my blog if you get free time. Your comments are important to me. Pls keep writing and I promise to visit here often as I can.

  2. fencer said

    Hi Karl,

    I think you’ve chosen two quite difficult philosophers to illuminate your discussion of ethics. I’ve always found Kant quite opaque, abstruse and technical… although that may be more my limitation than anything else.

    And Plato… he’s got more viewpoints on the same subject than you can shake a stick at.

    But then what philosophers could I suggest? And now I’m a little stuck…

    One alternative might be the Stoics such as Seneca. (The wikipedia site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism is a good source.)

    There’s also John Stuart Mills utilitarianism… I lean towards stoicism myself (and not the current meaning of the word).


  3. Deborah said

    Your blog is great. I really enjoy your writings. I have not had the time to examine your thoughts in depth, but I will.

  4. phdmommy said

    Kant never said to sacrifice oneself for the common good – Kant is a deontologist not a utilitarian. Kant argued that an act is moral if one is acting from the duty motive and the duty motive alone (not because it made you happy or because it contributed to the greater good). Peikoff grossly mis-characterizes Kant. Reason is the cornerstone in Kant’s philosophy. Through reason alone man can grasp the categorical imperative and therefore know which action accords to duty. Furthermore, the free and rational cannot act in any way they want – they must submit all their maxims of action to the categorical imperative. If the maxim passes, the action is permissible. For the action to be considered moral, the person must be acting because they recognize that it is a duty and for no other motive – including that it is for the greater good.

    If the Nazis used Kant, they grossly misunderstood him. Kant’s ethical system could never be read to endorse the systematic killing of a group of people. Killing is pretty much wrong in all instances for Kant – hence, the deontology.


    Also, to suggest that ethics is up to individuals and can’t ever be agreed upon is dangerous. As you point out, not everyone is nice and if individuals get to decide what is right, then Hitler’s ideas are on par with yours. The inadequacies of relativism and consequentialism were Kant’s reason for trying to find a morality rooted in reason that would hold for everyone and not change due to circumstances.

  5. […] On Ethics 1: Just A Point Of View? This post kicked off the Ethics series. It starts with a street photography issue but quickly veers into philosophy as related to life and politics. […]

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