When we reflect on the judgments we make, we should be able to agree on some basic principles of ethics or disagree on particular applications of those principles in different circumstances. For example, from an ethical viewpoint, we ought to be able to accept that the interests of all people are equal. My interests don't count for more than those of others elsewhere, provided similar interests are at stake. If we assume a given disease causes similar suffering in humans everywhere, then I think we can agree we should give equal weight to each patient suffering from it, irrespective of other differences.
That idea is reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants. Ethics is not a matter of taste; it is a self-evident truth akin to the reasoning of mathematics or logic. Therefore, ethics is a matter on which there are objectively right and wrong answers.
But, of course, within that idea of equal consideration of interests, there is room for different ethical views about what we ought to do and how we are to live. There are two fundamental philosophical approaches to this.
One view says that the right thing to do – insofar as everyone's interests have equal weight – is to try to maximize the interests of everybody, to promote well-being and reduce suffering. This is the utilitarian view associated with the 18th and early 19th century English philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and it is still held by various contemporary philosophers, including me.
The other view, associated with the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is the idea that certain things are inviolable; they are contrary to human dignity and must never be done.
We shouldn’t assume that evolution is guided by some kind of providence to reach the best ethical outcomes. We could imagine better outcomes: more intelligent, altruistic and compassionate humans, for example. Maybe that's what we need to do to protect the future of humanity.
The utilitarian view doesn't mean that human dignity is not important. Such rights are important because they lay a foundation for a society that promotes the well-being of everyone. But that view doesn't mean that you could never act against particular human rights.
Take the scenario of a runaway train heading toward a tunnel where it will kill five workers. If you divert the train it will kill only one. As a utilitarian, I think one should be prepared to sacrifice one life to save five.
Ethics and intellectual property rights
When it comes to...