In the following I will present to you my final term paper that I wrote about Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein or The modern Prometheus”. Please excuse any mistakes of language, I wrote this paper about a year ago and my style of writing has certainly changed ever since.
In regard of my thesis I first give a brief summary of the novel’s plot before diving into the topics of morals, ethics and scientific advancement. After that I focus on the novel itself, Frankenstein’s mistakes, their consequences, the moral of the novel and in how far the novel can still be cautionary tale for modern days.
If you are interested please keep reading. Thank you.
Frankenstein – not just a horror story
It is the creature we see, not the creator.
When asked about Frankenstein most people would describe a large green monster with bolts in his neck and stitches all over its body – a grunting, scary-looking killer that terrorizes people and walks around like a zombie. It is an image created by a series of films starting in the 1930s that burned into our brains leaving out every initial meaning of the original story.
The name Frankenstein that goes hand in hand with the image of the creature belongs originally to the creator – the scientist – Dr. Victor Frankenstein himself. The creature had no name, which is – in fact – an important aspect of the story. Further, it is dire to just see the creature as a monster slowly walking around with its arms straight out because it is rather highly intelligent and complex.
“Frankenstein or The modern Prometheus” is a gothic novel written by Mary Shelley and first published anonymously in 1818. The story told is about the young scientist Dr. Victor Frankenstein who wishes to create life.
In an unorthodox experiment Frankenstein constructs a sapient creature out of dead human body parts and brings it to life. When facing the results of his work the young scientist is so convulsed he neglects his own creature and leaves it to itself. However, the creature is having major problems finding its place in the world craving acceptance and company. Though, it tries its best learning to use language, read books and understand the human nature his needs are not met. People are terrified of him caused by his scary looks, which leads to the creature turning violent.
It is Frankenstein´s youngest brother William whom the wretch– as the creature is often called – kills first due to seek revenge on his creator for bringing him to life. Dr. Frankenstein is ravaged by grief and guilt when the creature finds him and begs him to create a female for itself or will otherwise kill Frankenstein´s loved ones including his friends and family. Although the young scientist at first agrees to the plea he destroys his work in the end fearing premonitions of disaster. The creature however makes its threats come true and murders Frankenstein´s best friend Clerval and later his just married wife Elizabeth on the wedding night. After the death of his beloved father who could not bear the passing by of Elizabeth whom he had loved like his own daughter Victor Frankenstein makes the decision to put an end to his creature to get revenge and chases it around the world. The pursuit finds its end at the North Pole where Victor Frankenstein collapses from exhaustion and gets rescued by a ship. Shortly after he dies there the creature visits his dead body. Realizing his creator´s death has not brought him peace and it is not able to live with its deeds, it decides to kill itself drifting away on an ice raft and is never to be seen again.
As shown in this summary Frankenstein is not just a horror story but rather a complex plot that poses ethical questions for the recipient to think about.
When reading the novel myself I formulated the thesis: “Frankenstein – an appeal to weigh ethical responsibility with regard to advancement in scientific studies” which I will consider during this term paper.
In order to do so I will first of all clarify the definition of ethic/moral in the following chapter. After that in chapter 3 the focus will be held on the general advancement in science and the responsibility scientists take before I examine the case of Frankenstein in detail in chapter 4. Further, this term paper will take an outlook on how Frankenstein is still a cautionary tale for modern science and then end with an résumé.
2. A definition of ethic/moral
The terms ethic or moral are quite frequently used when discussing controversial questions. We weigh what is ethically/morally reasonable and what is not. Nevertheless, it is primarily of significance to explicate those terms in order to use them with an equal perception.
The Collins Dictionary defines ethicsas “moral beliefs and rules about right and wrong” (Collins English Dictionary: Definition of ´ethic´. Online (retrieved: January 14th2018))
Which goes hand in hand with the definition of moral stating it means being “concerned with or relating to human behaviour, esp. the distinction between good and bad or right and wrong behaviour” (Collins English Dictionary: Definition of ´moral´. Online (retrieved: January 14th2018))
To conclude, ethic/moral means to scrutinize whether an action or reaction should be considered right or wrong based on our social rules and beliefs.
3. Advancement in science and the responsibility scientists take
Over the past hundreds of years science has made huge advancements in every kind. Whether it comes to physics, chemistry, biology or mathematics – science, and its child technology, have made our lives not only easier but also provide better medical treatment and analysis of diseases.
Despite all these positive aspects science also brought up elements quite controversial. An example: Dolly, the “world´s most famous sheep”, was the first mammal animal to ever be cloned and her example was followed by a series of other different animals´ clones. Cloning had been proven to work. The ethical correctness of such an action is still to be debatable.
At this point I would like to indicate that I do not see myself in the position to state a more or less objective answer to that question remaining, which would additionally go beyond the constraints of this term paper.
Nevertheless, I will stick with Dolly and her friends and just pretend to prepare for such a debate. First of all one needs to know what influences our ethical way of thinking.
Incidentally, I would like to refer to the previous chapter in which I have already exhibited that an ethical judgment is based on our social beliefs and rules – on our culture. In our western culture there are two branches of ethics that are supremely relevant for our ethical thinking: Utilitarianism and deontology.
Utilitarianism defines as a form of consequentialism which identifies right and wrong by its consequences (cf. DRIVER, Julia: The History of Utilitarianism. 2009 online (retrieved: February 10th2018). On the contrary deontology is an ethical theory that judges morality by using rules and wants people to do their duty. In other words, deontology deals with what we ought to do and not what we should. (cf. ALEXANDER, Larry: Deontological Ethics. 2007 Online (retrieved: February 10th2018).
Since these two theories are the complete opposite of each other a consensus-oriented solution during a discussion is always difficult to achieve. The “Four Principles” by the American ethicists Beauchamp and Childress are an attempt to determine “das kleinste gemeinsame Vielfache ethischer Diskussionen” (GERHARD, Christoph: 6.2 Mittlere Prinzipien der Ethik nach Beauchamp und Childress. Online (retrieved: February 11th2018) in order to ease the tension between the two ethical groups. Ottfried Höffe expounds what they contain:
Hier wird etwa die Achtung vor Leib und Leben vertreten oder die Rücksicht auf die Rechte der Mitmenschen, vielleicht auch die “Eigenrechte” der Natur, insbesondere der Tiere; weiterhin gibt es den Grundsatz, niemanden zu schädigen (neminem laedere; nil nocere), oder die Verpflichtung, Notleidenden zu helfen. (HÖFFE, Ottfried: Zur sittlich-politischen Verantwortung neuer Technologien: Das Beispiel der Genmanipulation. In: Otto Neumaier. Wissen und Gewissen Arbeiten zur Verantwortungsproblematik. Wien 1986. S. 75-94)
It turned out that balancing the “Four Principles” works so well that they are now the base for almost every principle of medical case review.
Returning to the example of the cloning-debate one could now scrutinize whether cloning is right or wrong using the got to known principles. But that answer does not close the case quite yet. The problem dealing with is little bit more complex. A lot of times it is just not enough to review on the four principles but one needs to also keep the side effects of advancement in mind.
Angesichts der Doppelgesichtigkeit der wissenschaftlich-technischen Zivilisation darf man bei neuen Technologien nicht bloß die Nutzanwendung und deren unmittelbaren Gefahren betrachten; auch die gesellschaftlichen und kulturellen Nebenfolgen sind zu berücksichtigen. (HÖFFE, Ottfried: Zur sittlich-politischen Verantwortung neuer Technologien: Das Beispiel der Genmanipulation. In: Otto Neumaier. Wissen und Gewissen Arbeiten zur Verantwortungsproblematik. Wien 1986. S. 75-94)
Which consequences will occur in society that may change it in a negative way? Can cloning have a negative impact on our culture? These are questions need to be asked before deciding if cloning is good or not which is just as or even more important than the four principles.
However, even when coming to the result that cloning should be continued, there is one question left that may weigh even more: Are we allowed to do it? And this questions leads to the same issue also Dr. Frankenstein seemed to leave behind when planning and conducting his scientific experiment: Are humans allowed to create life? Because one day people might take the next step and clone a human being and then we will be met with even more queries: Is this creature even a human being? Who takes the responsibility for it? Can it live like any other human being? And these are just a few thoughts.
Moreover, another problem occurs: Dolly´s cloning cannot be reversed. What if cloning had a highly negative impact on humanity? The damage would have been already done and could not be undone again. Who is now to blame? The scientist, most people would answer and it seems obvious.
Nevertheless, scientists are often not aware of their deeds and their consequences for themselves or society. Professor Thomas Metzinger, philosopher at the University Mainz, states:
Die Geschichte hat gezeigt, dass Menschen in ihrem Wissensdrang oft gar nicht so gerne an die ethischen Fragen denken und an die ethischen Konsequenzen, weil es ihnen erstmal nur darum geht zu zeigen, dass das überhaupt funktioniert. (Terra X Mythos Frankenstein. Regie: Oliver Halmburger. Mainz 2017. Online Dokumentation.)
In history it was even common for a long time to think of science as ethically neutral and to insist that scientists do not have to take responsibility for any discovery or their application (cf. LENK, Hans Verantwortung und Gewissen des Forschers.Insbruck 2006.). Hans Lenk surveys this topic in his work Verantwortung und Gewissen des Forschersby weighing pro and contraand comes to the conclusion that each scientist takes at least co-responsibility for his actions no matter if they are acting on their own or conducting instructions (LENK, Hans:Verantwortung und Gewissen des Forschers.Insbruck 2006.).
In summary, it can be stated that advancement in science is not per se approving and can be connected with ethical issues about their correctness. In such debates it is important to keep in mind who/what might suffer or benefit from the consequences of the discovery or their application. Lastly, if the results are unexpected negative the scientist should not be afraid to take co-responsibility.
4. The case “Frankenstein”
Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the man that recreated life on his own and who is in the broadest sense the father of the creature, often only plays a minor role when portraying “Frankenstein” nowadays, even though he is the main-character in Shelley´s novel.
His creature pop-culture often reduces to a dull monster. Yet the novel is supposed to showcase an example of a tragic outcome of scientific advancement. Moreover, it is a warning and a prediction of what the eagerness to experiments might lead to in the future. The mistakes of a single scientist causing outcomes that can never be reversed to take a turn for the better.
4.1 The mistakes of Dr. Victor Frankenstein
Frankenstein had the best requirements to become a successful and famous scientist. In the first chapters he narrated his early life as a child and young teenage boy where his intelligence and inquisitiveness become clear. Already back then he showed high interests in science that turned during his attendance at the university in Ingolstadt slowly into a rather unhealthy passion.
My eyes were insensible to the charms of nature (SHELLEY, Mary: Frankenstein: Original 1818 Uncensored Version 2017 p. 33).
These were Frankenstein´s words when remembering the way he had neglected summer and its beauty. Seen in continuity of the entire story it becomes an even deeper meaning. Frankenstein did not only talk about the nature itself here. It was a confession to his first mistake that was thinking he had been in the position to create or more precisely recreate life without any consequences. “The charms of nature” lie not only in its beauty but also in its independence and arbitrary act. In short, humans are not allowed to interfere with the natural process of life and death. The young scientist had counteracted and when recalling his deeds he realized how blind he had been.
True to the proverb: Abyssus abyssum invocat.Frankenstein did not only betray nature but also his family, friends and himself – his second mistake. His creation of the “wretch” was a complex process of months of work and since that business took over his life entirely he began to forget about his family and friends and what truly brought him joy. In chapter III he notes: “I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit“(SHELLEY 2017. p.33).
Further he admits that his unhealthy passion (that can be called an addiction already) “swallowed up every habit of [his] nature”(SHELLEY, Mary: Frankenstein: Original 1818 Uncensored Version2017. p.32).
In this context it is displayed that Frankenstein had no own willpower anymore. His addiction to finishing his labor even when he was not far from relinquishing induced his proceeding. The urge to continue overpowered his self-control as his narration shows: “Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction“ (SHELLEY, Mary: Frankenstein: Original 1818 Uncensored Version2017 p.28).
Also, he talks about the “evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which asserted omnipotent sway over [him]…“(SHELLEY, Mary: Frankenstein: Original 1818 Uncensored Version2017 p.43).
Frankenstein´s reflection shows that at this point his work was already – slowly but surely – destroying him without it being alive yet.
After nearly two years the creature was given life to. However, Frankenstein’s reaction was unlike the expectations one might have had:
The different accidents of life are not changeable as the feelings of human nature. […] For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart (SHELLEY, Mary: Frankenstein: Original 1818 Uncensored Version2017 p.35).
The young scientist is not only fulfilled with fear but also with neglect of his creature. Trying to “solve” his problem he simply ran away when the creature confronted him hoping it will be gone as soon as he returns and he will never have to see it again. To Frankenstein’s disadvantage his plan indeed worked out – but only for the blink of an eye.
Running from his responsibility that Frankenstein had for the creature is considered as his third mistake.
As explained in the chapter before the scientist always takes or rather has to take at least co-responsibility for his research and its results. Nevertheless, in the case “Frankenstein” the scientist is in fact fully responsible. The creation was his own idea and not at any point has he ever been pressured by anyone than himself to finish his work. Leaving the creature on its own was the biggest mistake Frankenstein could have made.
When rising to life the creature was practically as vulnerable as a baby. Whosever brain it possessed, it was mostly blank by now. The innocent creature did not know how to speak, write or read and did not know about human nature. Therefore it would have been Frankenstein´s task to teach it and integrate it into human society (as far as that would have been possible). However Frankenstein did not even made an attempt but instead fully disregarded his own creature disgusted by it and by himself for calling it into existence and left it on its own. What makes it all the worse is that Frankenstein had not only had this one chance to take responsibility for his actions at the beginning of the novel but he got into multiple situations in which he could have taken care of the “wretch” and thus prevent the deaths of multiple people including his own, when he was already aware of what it was capable of.
Summa summarum, Frankenstein devoted himself to the wrong occupation which absorbed all his joy and happiness. He let the addiction overpower his own will and finished what he secretly knew was insincere. However, his biggest mistake was to decline all responsibility and leave his creation to itself.
4.2 The consequences
Certainly Frankenstein´s incorrect behavior was not without consequences.
As a result to not accepting responsibility for the creature it had to discover life and humanity on its own. It began to stray through the country quickly realizing people were afraid of its appearance which lead to it hiding from them.
People fought every attempt of the creature to interfere with humanity and integrate in society. Soon the creature also found out about its abhorrent sight and began to hate itself. The not-acceptance of people, the consequent loneliness of the creature and its low self-esteem turned the once innocent, loving being into a hateful, depressed monster.
It especially developed a hatred for its own creator accusing him of its fate. The creature speaks: “CURSED, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed?”(Ebd. S. 91).Further when pleading Frankenstein for a companion he should create its self-hate becomes clear: “I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me”(Edb. S.96).
However, the “wretch” did not only let out its frustration on his creator in the form of words but also actions. Firstly, it murdered Frankenstein´s youngest brother William. In this context William´s nanny, Justine, died as well as she is convicted for his murder in the trial and Frankenstein was once again too scared to take responsibility for its own creature.
Later when Frankenstein refuses to create a female companion for the creature it murders his best friend Clerval in order to sway him. But even after having gotten imprisoned for Clerval´s murder in Ireland Frankenstein still did not give in. The creature responded by murdering his creator´s wife – his cousin Elizabeth – on the wedding night. Lastly Frankenstein also had to bear his father´s death who had been weakened by age and the sad news of Elizabeth´s death.
As a response to the pain and suffering the creature had caused him the young scientist begins to chaste him across the world. The pursuit ends at the North Pole where Frankenstein collapses from exhaustion and shortly after dies. Shortly after his death the creature visits Frankenstein´s dead body. Guilt and self-loathing hit the “wretch” and drive it into suicide.
To put it in a nutshell, the irresponsible negligent behavior of Dr. Frankenstein lead to the destruction of his own life and the death of multiple innocent people whom additionally the scientist was near and dear to. Further not even the creature survived and set an end to its own life.
4.3 The moral of the novel
As pointed out in 4.2 and 4.3 “Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus “ is indeed not just a horror story but reveals many conflicts and complex issues to think about.
The question remaining is: What, after all, is the moral of the novel?
Before answering that question I would like to acknowledge that the novel obviously provides a full range of interpretative approaches (e.g. how appearances determine our lives). However, I will only focus on Frankenstein´s mistakes and its consequences in order to be able to approve or disapprove of my thesis from the beginning later (see chapter 6).
To be honest, interpretations are never cast in stone – in fact one can only guess what an author intended to tell their recipients. Sometimes it is understood the right way and sometimes it remains a secret. In the Frankenstein-case, however, it is certain that Mary Shelley was not trying to curry sympathy for science when writing the novel. On the contrary, she was trying to scare people – though not in the “horror-way” as portrayed by pop-culture but in a warning way. Shelley was worried, even horrified of what science conducted by a thoughtless person could imply.
The author created a prototype of a scientist – intelligent, eager and passionate: Dr. Victor Frankenstein. He is not like any other scientist but also not one that seems to never exist. In the 18th/19thcentury life was still so less explored au contraire to nowadays it appears natural that one would soon try an experiment like his, especially as such a man already practiced. Around 1803 when electricity was first invented the Italian scientist Aldini found himself being able to “bring dead body parts back to life” by shooting electricity through them (cf. Brown, Alan S.: The Science That Made Frankenstein online (retrieved: March 3rd2018). A lot of people were terrified by such actions and so – probably – was Shelley. To this day it is controversial whether he inspired her, even though it is most likely.
A cue to the description of Frankenstein is “passion”. Most people would agree that one needs passion in order to do their work properly. However, in the novel it is what destroys the young scientist. His passion does not stay a healthy urge to study but Frankenstein soon becomes more and more addictive of his scheme. As a consequence he was not able to overthink the ethical responsibility he has to take when creating life or to leave his study unfinished. Shelley lets her figure reflect on his own behavior:
If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not benefitting the human mind (SHELLEY, Mary: Frankenstein: Original 1818 Uncensored Version2017 p.34).
Nevertheless, that realization hits him too late. Shelley wants to point out that humans, when getting engaged in something they are passionate about, have no control anymore and cannot reject their project.
Doubts about his pursuit should have appeared earlier. However, Frankenstein did not even waste a thought about the ethical correctness of his actions beforebeginning his experiment.
This is the reason Shelley wrote her novel. During the 19thcentury most recipients Shelley was able to reach with this novel where citizens of the upper class since only they had the privilege to education. These people included scientists whom Shelley wanted to appeal conscience. She wanted to showcase how terrible the outcomes of scientific advancement can be and warn them.
Moreover, it was her intention to raise ethical questions concerning the correctness of their experiments, which she also answered. In that context, the novel can be divided into two parts: The first (from the beginning to Chapter IV in which the creatures rises to life) poses the question: Is Frankenstein allowed to exploit scientific advancement to its fullest?
The second (Chapter IV to the end) answers that question precisely: No, he was not.
Because if Shelley would have approved of the scientist’s work the outcomes would have shown e.g. an integrated creature that becomes part of humanity. Instead it goes around killing people seeking revenge on his creator and in the end kills itself. In her opinion no person should ever see himself or herself in the position to interfere with the natural circle of life and death.
“Frankenstein” was an attempt to prevent horrible outcomes by trying to restrain scientist from performing such experiments at all.
To conclude, the moral of the story is that humans are not allowed to exhaust all possibilities of scientific advancement. Scientists may not be able to take responsibility, which can lead to innocent people suffering from the consequences.
Or, in short: Humans are not allowed to play god.
5. “Frankenstein” as a cautionary tale for modern science
Shelley´s novel presents by no means a story with an obsolete meaning. On the contrary, “Frankenstein” can be seen as a cautionary tale even for modern science.
Nowadays the advancement in science is still respectively indeed more controversial. Here is to mention e.g. Cloning (see chapter 2), GM technology or Embryonic Stem Cell Research which all provide the question whether scientists are allowed to perform experiments of the kind.
Tough “Frankenstein” does not grapple with e.g. GM technology its moral fits nevertheless. Maybe not now but much later the consequences and the price we will have to pay may be of such extent that in the end we should have just let plants grow the way they want and yield nature.
The novel shows us possible consequences of humans trying to play god back in the 18th/19th century and still in the 21stcentury humans have not given up on exploring life to its fullest.
Who tells us that when maybe one day scientists go as far as cloning human beings the same as in “Frankenstein” could happen to us.
Moreover, not only science including living beings can be dangerous. Another cue that comes more and more often to the force is robots. Artificial intelligence became an important meaning over the past couple of years. As shown by vacuum cleaners or lawnmowers robots can provide a lot of help in the everyday world. Yet, their intelligence can also be controversial – e.g. robots as weapons of war.
Nowadays even more occasions are revealed in which one would like to just tell scientists to read “Frankenstein or The modern Prometheus” and think about the meaning than back in the 19thcentury. Consequently, a novel like Shelley´s might be actually more important in the 21stcentury for mankind.
Always significant to remember is that science is never per se an acceptable or corrupt aspect but men also have to visualize which line they cannot cross.
Shelley gives us an impact to overthink our actions before it is too late and in that way “Frankenstein” is still a cautionary tale for modern science.
At the beginning of this term paper I stated my thesis:
“Frankenstein – an appeal to weigh ethical responsibility with regard to advancement in scientific studies.”
After clarifying the definition of “ethic” and “moral” I found out about their roles in science. “The Four Principles” and the question of legitimacy are major parts in that context. It additionally became clear that the scientist cannot just do whatever they want to without later taking responsibility for their work. That kept in mind Frankenstein could be identified as the one responsible for his creature and his neglect of it being his biggest mistake.
Following, the consequences of his actions brought suffering over his family, himself and eventually also over the creature.
Combining all facts gained (from chapter 2 to chapter 4.2) in chapter 4.3 I was able to understand and showcase the moral of the novel revealing Shelley´s intention of writing it.
The outcome provided that humans are not allowed to exhaust scientific advancement without a limit even if it was theoretically possible.
In this respect my thesis can be considered as correct.
Shelley does not want at any point to forbid scientists to do research but to make them aware of what can happen when they are not careful. They should always overthink their experiments precisely before performing them and eventually causing harm. Moreover, she displays through the character Frankenstein that the scientists are often not able to take responsibility or do not want to – even if they should. This point is another important argument why scientist may not perform an experiment. Only when they can be sure to be able to deal with the consequences they should precede their plan.
Consequently, my thesis is approval and Shelley indeed appeals to weigh ethical responsibility with regard to advancement in science.
Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein: Original 1818 Uncensored Version. 2017
HÖFFE, Ottfried: Zur sittlich-politischen Verantwortung neuer Technologien: Das Beispiel der Genmanipulation. In: Otto Neumaier. Wissen und Gewissen Arbeiten zur Verantwortungsproblematik. Wien 1986.
LENK, Hans: Verantwortung und Gewissen des Forschers.Insbruck 2006
ALEXANDER, Larry: Deontological Ethics. 2007 URL:https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/(retrieved: February 10th, 2018).
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Brown, Alan S.: The Science That Made Frankenstein. 2010 URL: https://www.insidescience.org/news/science-made-frankenstein (retrieved: March 3rd, 2018).
DRIVER, Julia: The History of Utilitarianism. 2009 URL: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/(retrieved: February 10th, 2018).
GERHARD, Christoph: 6.2 Mittlere Prinzipien der Ethik nach Beauchamp und Childress. URL:https://www.thieme-connect.de/products/ebooks/lookinside/10.1055/b-0034-101649?device=mobile&innerWidth=980&offsetWidth=980(retrieved: February 11th, 2018).
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Unknown author: Collins English Dictionary: Definition of ´ethic´. URL:https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/ethic(retrieved: January 14th, 2018).
Unknown author: Collins English Dictionary: Definition of ´moral´. URL: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/moral(retrieved January 14th, 2018).