What is ethics?
Ethics is a system of moral
principles. Ethics is one of the most controversial subjects of philosophy,
mainly because of its relation to our everyday lives. They affect how people
make decisions and lead their lives. Moral philosophy can also be described as
what is good for individuals and society.
We are faced with
choices like these daily, questions that that demand direct and immediate
decisions. The problems of everyday ethics call for our own resolutions. But how do we arrive at our judgments? Each
individual’s set of ethics provides the fundamental principles or beliefs by
which that person distinguishes, consciously after some thought or
unconsciously and seemingly by instinct, between morally acceptable and morally
unacceptable behaviour in that person’s eyes.
The term ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos which can
mean custom, habit, character or disposition. Ethics covers dilemmas including:
how one can live a good life, people’s rights and responsibilities, our moral
decisions which entail what is good and bad and the language of right and wrong.
The human concepts of ethics have been
derived from things including religions, philosophies and cultures. These and
other reasons bring up debates on controversial topics like abortion, human
rights and professional conduct.
Approaches to ethics
Philosophers have divided ethical theories into three areas: metaethics,
normative ethics and applied ethics.
Meta-ethics deals with the nature of moral
judgement. It looks at the origins and meaning of ethical principles.
Normative ethics is concerned with the content of
moral judgements and the criteria for what is right or wrong.
Applied ethics looks at controversial topics like
war, animal rights and capital punishment.
needs to provide answers. If ethical theories are to be useful in practice,
they need to affect the way human beings behave.
Ethics can be used to provide a moral map, a
framework that we can use to find our way through difficult issues. When it comes to most moral
debates like abortion and euthanasia, philosophers might offer ethical
rules and principles that enable us to take a different view of moral
problems.Ethics can be used to identify a disagreement. Using
the framework of ethics, two people who are arguing a moral issue can
often find that what they disagree about is just one particular part of
the issue, and that they broadly agree on everything else. However, this
may not always be the case.Ethics does not give right or wrong answers which
make it easy for people to make decisions out of their own free will. For
many ethical issues there is not a single right answer but a set of
principles that can be applied to particular cases to give those involved
some clear choices. Some philosophers go further and say that all ethics
can do is eliminate confusion and clarify the issues. After that it’s up
to each individual to come to their own conclusions.
There are ranges of sources from
which we each as individuals we draw at least some of the principles and rules
that, for each of us, underlie our standards of right and wrong behaviour.
From some philosophers’
perspective, doing well is what we naturally do if we are brought up properly
by our parents. Even though proper upbringing has many interpretations, it is
however true that most of us agree to some “universal” and “basic” concepts of
morality, like the “do not kill other people” principle, no matter what our
other beliefs are.
According to Socrates,
a philosopher people will naturally do what is good, if they know what is
right. Evil or bad actions are the result of ignorance. If a criminal were
truly aware of the mental and spiritual consequences of his actions, he would
neither commit nor even consider committing them. Any person who knows what is
truly right will automatically do it, according to Socrates. While Socrates
associated knowledge with virtue, he similarly equated virtue with happiness.
The truly wise man will know what is right, do what is good and therefore be
happy. The tool towards that “good” was self-knowledge. Socrates insists that
every person must reach into himself and learn himself and only then will we
know what is really “good” for us.
Later Life Experience
life-shaping event later in life may more directly and consciously shape a
person’s ethics. For example, someone severely injured in an automobile
accident may have a much higher opinion of the entire automobile-injury
reparations system, including the police who investigated, the hospital that
provided care, the lawyers and courts that resolved any legal issues, and the
insurers that helped finance so much of the injured person’s recovery, if that
person is satisfied with the ultimate medical and financial result months and
years after the accident. If, however, this victim feels the result was
medically inferior or legally unfair, the victim may well treat everyone in the
system unfairly, years later in circumstances unrelated to the original
accident in an effort to seek some measure of personal “justice.”
Theistic philosophers have for a long time had the view that morality
and ethics are intrinsic qualities of being human and that the very existence
of such a “moral law” denotes the existence of a “law-maker”.
Virtually all the world’s religions teach an essentially similar code of
ethics that emphasizes honesty, respect for others and their rights, and
selflessness. Therefore, in both business and personal situations, a highly
religious person is likely to act in ways that most of us will regard as highly
ethical. Their religion will give them highly explicit, generally internally
consistent, guides to “good” personal conduct. These guidelines
usually can be broadened to apply quite well to business activity. Moreover,
those for whom religion is not a central force in their lives are more likely
to act in self-centered, ethically questionable ways.
Ethics as selfish desires
The 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes held that
many, if not all, of our actions are prompted by selfish desires. Even if an
action seems selfless, such as donating to charity, there are still selfish
causes for this, such as experiencing power over other people.
This view is called “psychological
egoism” and maintains that self-oriented interests ultimately motivate all
human actions. Closely
related to psychological egoism is a view called psychological hedonism which is the view that pleasure is the specific driving
force behind all of our actions. Joseph Butler, a British philosopher agreed
that instinctive selfishness and pleasure prompt much of our conduct. However,
Butler argued that we also have an inherent psychological capacity to show
kindness to others. This view is called
psychological altruism and maintains that at least some of our actions
are motivated by instinctive benevolence.
The creation of society
Normative ethics involves arriving at moral standards that regulate
right and wrong conduct. In a sense, it is a search for an ideal test of proper
behaviour. The Golden Rule is a classic example of a normative principle: We
should do to others what we would want others to do to us. Since I do not want
my neighbour to steal my car, then it is wrong for me to steal her car. Many
people claim that being good is just a result of society calling you to behave
in a certain way.
There are many “Ethical Decision-Making Models” which are based on the
instructions of society for what is good and what is bad. These models help us
to decide the ethical thing to do when we are at a crossroads.
For example we could ask ourselves the following questions to help us
decide the “ethical” decision:
Are we treating others as we
would want to be treated? Would we be comfortable if
our reasoning and decision were to be publicized? Would we be comfortable if
our children were observing us?
Some of these models and rules
are indeed useful guides. But one should remember that a simple model cannot
tell one how to behave correctly in all situations. Human judgment and
self-awareness is required.
ethics are perhaps the most direct and explicit sources of our daily ethical
guidance especially for business conduct. Whether issued by professional
societies, by a business or fraternal society or by civic these ethical codes
generally have two goals.
is to set forth objectives like quality output, honesty, and public service in
the customer or community dealings by the people who are governed by, or choose
to subscribe to, a particular code.
second typical goal is to protect those to whom the code applies from harmful
conduct by others governed by that particular code—conduct such as unfair
competition or actions that that cast the entire group in a bad light. This
second goal often is expressed through rather specific rules about what those
governed by the code definitely must, or must not, do in their dealings with
customers, one another, and the public at large. These self-protective rules
can sometimes appear to conflict with religious, philosophical, or other
sources of ethical guidance.
daily, quite casually, and sometimes without thinking, virtually all of us talk
about others’ and our own actions—offering frequent opinions about whether what
they or we have been doing is good, right, and sensible (or perhaps very much
the opposite). Buried in this “small talk,” “chit chat,”
gossip, and mealtime conversations are implicit—sometimes very explicit—ethical
judgments about the behaviour being discussed. People and their words and
actions are labelled “wonderful,” “mean,”
“greedy,” “generous,” or hundreds of other qualities. Over
time, these discussions lead each of us to a sense of what the people around us
consider to be good and bad, ethical and unethical, conduct. Unless we have
strong personal reasons or other commitments to believe otherwise, most of us
tend to “go along” with the opinions of those around us, rather than
“bucking the tide” by independently evaluating the ethical aspects of
others’ actions. Thus, often almost automatically, the social consensus can
become the approved, although unexamined, ethical standard.
contrast to these ethics of casual social consensus, the philosophers who have
developed systems of ethics—such people as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, and
more recent ethical thinkers throughout the world—have developed basic
principles from which they have derived systems of ethics. These principles
fall into two general groups: those that are rules-based and those that are
of rule-based ethics appear in the Bible’s Ten Commandments, in many
professions’ codes of ethics, and in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you
would have others do unto you. Results-based systems of ethics emphasize principles
such as physicians never knowingly doing or allowing medical harm; doing the
greatest good for the greatest number of people (Bentham and other
utilitarians), and Kant’s principle of universality—taking an action only if
everyone could take the same action without bringing about more harm than good
and without creating logical impossibilities (like the logical impossibility of
every person being more generous to every other person than anyone is to the
source of ethics is a way of developing one’s ethical awareness and
sensibilities than a separate source of ethical guidance by pondering ethical
dilemmas. These dilemmas are real or imagined situations that pit two or more
ethical principles, rules, or objectives against one another. To resolve the
dilemma, one has to decide which of these ethically desirable ends is the
more/most important or, alternatively, if there is a way to achieve both/all of
these ends without committing some other ethical wrong.
if you are an adult and your father, convicted as a murderer, has escaped a
federal prison in California to hide in your Missouri house, how do you respond
when an FBI agent standing in your yard asks “Is your father in your house
now?” Assuming he is, “Yes” breaks the commandment to honour
one’s parents, but “No” breaks the commandment to tell the truth in
all morally significant situations.
spouse asks if she/he is especially beautiful/handsome as you are leaving you
house to go to a friend’s birthday party, your response probably is not
ethically significant for the community, but it may be very significant within
dilemmas can provide good settings for exploring ethical questions. For example
in the case of your escaped father hiding in your house, is your response to
the FBI agent influenced by the fact that:
You know from your direct
personal knowledge that your father did not commit the murder of which he
was wrongly convicted?Your father seriously abused
you, your brother, and your sister physically when you were young
sample ethical dilemma does not involve the ethics of being a good risk
management professional—I readily acknowledge that. But our objective here has
been to explore the general sources of ethics and of ethical enlightenment. In
future Commentaries—as in at least one past Commentary—we will consider some
dilemmas that come straight out of risk management and insurance and that
illustrate clashes of ethics that arise from a variety of the basic sources of
ethics that we have just surveyed.
Even though the notions
of good and bad are so close to us, they are still the hardest to define. There
are many reasons for a person to do good to his fellow humans. Only one thing
is certain: self-knowledge is a good starting point to begin with.