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The role of ethics

This paper does not pretend to provide definitions for complex terms such as morality and ethics. The following is presented merely as a means to orient the reader and faciliate understanding of the remainder of the paper.

Morality and ethics

Morality refers to the social norms and values that guide both individuals and their interaction with their fellow human beings and communities, and with their environment. In all of these types of interaction there are important values at stake; rules and norms that are to protect these values; duties implied in social roles and positions that can foster these values and further these rules; and human virtues or capabilities that enable us to act accordingly. These moral factors are usually interwoven with religious practices and social power structures.

Ethics is a systematic and critical analysis of morality, of the moral factors that guide human conduct in a particular society or practice. As fisheries represent an interaction between humans and the aquatic ecosystem, fisheries ethics deals with the values, rules, duties and virtues of relevance to both human and ecosystem well-being, providing a critical normative analysis of the moral issues at stake in that sector of human activities.

When actual moral values, rules and duties are subjected to ethical analysis, their relation to basic human interests shared by people, regardless of their cultural setting, is particularly important. Moral values may change, and moral reasoning asks whether the practices that are traditionally and factually legitimated by religion, law or politics are indeed worthy of recognition. Indeed, the development of ethics in the past century has been characterized by a tendency to revalue and overthrow the moral conventions that have guided the interaction between the sexes, between human beings and animals and between human beings and their environment. A more recent task of ethics is to resist those tendencies of globalization, marketization and technologization that erode both biodiversity and valuable aspects of cultural identity - and may even have effects that threaten human rights. Although these tendencies are often presented as value-neutral, they carry with them hidden assumptions that are potential sources of inequity and abuse.

Basic human interests

· Welfare implies material well-being, as well as the conservation of a productive ecosystem, and relates to fisheries as a provision of food and livelihood.

· Freedom, or human self-determination, relates to access to fishing resources, fishers' self-control and other life options related to fisheries.

· Justice relates to the distribution of the benefits of fishing and to the ownership of scarce resources.

In attempting to identify which traditional and innovative practices are worthy of recognition, a moral argument asks whether - and how - actual moral factors further the well-being of human and non-human creatures. Moral reasoning always relates to the basic interests of humans and other sentient beings and to the value of the environment that sustains both human and non-human life.

An ethical analysis can play an important part in identifying human and nonhuman interests and the value of the ecosystem as a whole. It also asks how these values and interests may be threatened or undermined and how they may be furthered or protected. Ecosystem well-being is of crucial importance both in itself and for basic human interests and long-term social benefits. In this document, the main focus is on the way in which fishing policies and practices affect the living conditions, interests and well-being of fishers and fishing communities, as well as the well-being of the ecosystem. This is in keeping with sustainable development, the dominant concept of environmental ethics, enshrined in the FAO concept of responsible fisheries.

Basic human interests

A major aspect of an ethical analysis of fisheries must be to clarify the human interests and social benefits that can be considered necessary conditions for leading a decent human life. Basic human interests are related to the main tasks that humans need to undertake in life in order to satisfy their needs and lead their lives in coexistence with others. In line with classical ethical thought, these interests can be divided into three main categories: (i) Welfare: People need basic goods to survive and care for their offspring; (ii) Freedom: People seek to regulate their own affairs and realize their life plans in accordance with their own or culturally defined values; (iii) Justice: People need to find ways to share social benefits and burdens and facilitate peaceful coexistence.

In this context, moral analysis aims to show, for example, how the human interests in welfare, freedom and justice are relevant and how they relate to social benefits in the management of fisheries.

These basic interests are intricately connected to the capabilities necessary for leading a decent human life and, thus, to the vulnerabilities against which people must be protected. They constitute the moral values that moral reasoning aims to defend, e.g. by framing fundamental principles that serve to guide our moral interaction and to protect basic moral interests.

At the most general level, the related vulnerabilities against which people must be protected are: poverty, domination and injustice.

Fundamental principles of bioethics

Although different ethical theories may have different priority principles and reasoning behind them, a consensus has been forming about the main principles of bioethics:[1]

Solidarity, equity and cooperation are fundamental principles of bioethics


[1] An outline of a Declaration on Universal Norms on Bioethics was presented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization International Bioethics Committee in Paris, France, 23-24 August 2004, and in Reykjavik, Iceland, 26 August 2004.

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