Words: Ethical

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The Independent Online
ANITA RODDICK'S Body Shop has been having a bit of trouble with an ethical investor, we read. What can it have done wrong? Against what moral principles, what basic rules of human behaviour, has it sinned? Only those who take an old-fashioned view of what ethical means need ask such questions. Not all the Body Shop's products, it is alleged, are made of environmentally friendly materials: not enough of them have helped boost the economies of the Third World; and there may have been some dubious emissions from one of its factories. In short, to be ethical is no more than to be ecologically correct.

Thus has a noble word reached the semantic equivalent of Shakespeare's sixth age, its big manly voice turning to childish treble. No longer does it address those universal questions that have preoccupied philosophers from Plato to G E Moore. What is the relationship between wisdom and virtue, beauty and truth, personal pleasure and ultimate good? Never mind about all that now. Are you green?

The Labour Party under its new leader has done something towards restoring dignity to the word with its belief in Ethical Socialism, under which, unlike the old unethical variety, politicians will abjure sleaze, labour will speak unto capital, capital unto labour, and the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb. This use of ethical is itself fairly recent. Until the late-19th century it had moral implications but no moral content: it meant simply 'to do with ethics'. It was only then that it began also to mean 'behaving in an ethical manner'. But even tyrants have their peculiar ethical codes, as do honourable thieves, so it can't be said that the word gained much in precision.

Ethical investors sounds ambiguous unless we understand that it's the investments that have the ethics, rather than the investors, who for all we know or care might lead quite unprincipled personal lives. However one looks at it, it's still a long way from Plato.