Ethics Explored

What is meant by “ethics”?

Ethics is the study of the standards of right and wrong that inform us as to how we ought to behave. These standards relate to unwritten rules that are necessary for humans to live among each other, such as “don’t hurt others.” We function better as a society when we treat each other well.

Ethics can also refer to the standards themselves. They often pertain to rights, obligations, fairness, responsibilities, and specific virtues like honesty and loyalty.

They are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons; as such, they have universal appeal. It’s never good to have a society that supports hurting others as a general rule; honesty and loyalty are positive attributes.

Can we think of instances when hurting others is condoned (such as in war) and where honesty or loyalty may be misplaced? Of course! That’s one of the reasons why ethics are so complicated, and what makes Core 202 such an interesting class.

What is not “ethics”?

We need to distinguish ethics from what it is not. It’s easier if you can remember that ethics doesn’t change:

  • Ethics is not what’s legal. The law often puts into writing our ethical standards (don’t hurt others=don’t commit homicide) but it also usually reflects our cultural beliefs at the time. For example, hunting is legal in Virginia, but it would be difficult to say that everyone agrees that it is ethical to hunt. Some people will argue that hunting is ethical because it manages the wildlife population, while others will argue that it is never ethical because it creates pain and suffering.
  • Ethics is not what you feel. In fact, most times our feelings are very egocentric: what’s best for me and my nearest and dearest? But making judgments based on these sentiments could be detrimental to society as a whole,
  • Ethics is not religion. Religions may teach ethical standards, and you may personally use religion to guide your beliefs, but people can have ethics without necessarily belonging to a religion. Therefore, ethics and religion are not interchangeable.
  • Ethics is not a political ideology. A political party may share your values and offer ethical arguments to supports its policies, but your decisions aren’t automatically ethical, just because you belong to one political party or another. In fact, many, if not most, political debates are built from arguments that claim one aspect of an ethical dilemma is more significant than another.

What does it mean to be ethical?

When we explore what it means to be ethical, we are looking at what is rationally “right” and “wrong.” We need to have such conversations so that we can live with other people in society. Philosophers would also argue that the best way to achieve our fullest potential is by being ethical.

In this course, we are not teaching you what to believe. We are building on the skills you learned in Core 201 to identify, evaluate, create and analyze ethical arguments.

Do “ethical” and “moral” mean the same thing?

For the purposes of this Handbook, the answer is ‘yes’. The terms ethical and moral are often used as synonyms, and we will adopt this convention and use these terms interchangeably. For most purposes this works fine, but some authors and teachers do see a distinction between these ideas. Usually when the terms are distinguished it is because “morals” can connote very culture-specific norms or expectations. Hence “the mores of the Azande” describes the moral norms of that particular tribe or culture, but without expectation that these norms are universally valid. When “ethics” is contrasted with “morals,” the writer is usually discussing certain normative ethical theories that maintain that certain principles, rules, or virtues have universal ethical validity. A slightly more comprehensive answer would describe the difference; say from an ethical relativist positions definition, as hinging on ethical standards being subjected to the scrutiny of reason or rationality as its fundamental method.

What are values?

Frequently when used in discussions of ethics the term values is used to refer to the fundamental ideals that an individual relies on to describe praise-worthy behavior. A person’s values are the bedrock concepts used to determine their ethical decisions. Most generally speaking values represent aspirational goals common within your culture or society. Values such as honesty, benevolence, wisdom, duty, or compassion are universally recognized laudable and desirable features of a well-developed character. But which values are most important may differ from individual to individual, or across cultures. We could refer to the values of the feudal Japanese samurai culture placing the highest emphasis on the concept of personal honor. We could compare and contrast that with the European knightly virtues as a similar yet distinctively different set of cultural values. We could draw on political beliefs to describe the concepts of equality and freedom at the heart of democratic ideals, contrasting them with a constitutional monarchy that perhaps places the highest importance on duty and tradition as its central political ideals

What are some examples of ethical issues?

Ethical issues abound in contemporary society. Ethical issues involve questions of the ethical rightness or wrongness of public policy or personal behavior.  Actions or policies that affect other people always have an ethical dimension, but while some people restrict ethical issues to actions that can help or harm others (social ethics) others include personal and self-regarding conduct (personal ethics).

Many of today’s most pressing issues of social ethics are complex and multifaceted and require clear and careful thought. Some of these issues include:

  • Should states allow physician-assisted suicide?
  • Is the death penalty an ethically acceptable type of punishment?
  • Should animals have rights?
  • Is society ever justified in regulating so-called victimless crimes like drug use, not wearing a helmet or a seatbelt, etc.?
  • What are our responsibilities to future generations?
  • Are affluent individuals and countries obligated to try to prevent starvation, malnutrition, and poverty wherever we find them in the world?
  • Is there such a thing as a just war?
  • How does business ethics relate to corporate responsibility?

To reach careful conclusions, these public policy issues require people to engage in complicated ethical reasoning, but the ethical reasoning involving personal issues can be just as complex and multifaceted:

  • What principles do I apply to the way I treat other people?
  • What guides my own choices and my own goals in life?
  • Should I have the same expectations of others in terms of their behavior and choices as I have of myself?
  • Is living ethically compatible or incompatible with what I call living well or happily?

How can I effectively apply critical reasoning to an ethical issue?

People care quite a bit about ethical issues and often voice varied and even sharply opposed perspectives. So when looking at how we debate ethical issues publicly, it is not surprising to find debate ranging from formal to informal argumentation, and from very carefully constructed arguments with well-qualified conclusions, to very biased positions and quite fallacious forms of persuasion. It’s easy to be dismayed by the discord we find over volatile issues like gun control, immigration policy, and equality in marriage or in the workplace, gender and race equality, abortion and birth control, jobs versus environment, freedom versus security, free speech and censorship, and so on. But it is also easy to go the other direction and be drawn into the often fallacious reasoning we hear all around us.

Critical thinkers want to conduct civil, respectful discourse, and to build bridges in ways that allow progress to be made on difficult issues of common concern. Progress and mutual understanding is not possible when name-calling, inflammatory language, and fallacies are the norm. Some mutual respect, together with the skill of being able to offer a clearly-structured argument for one’s position, undercuts the need to resort to such tactics. So critical thinkers resist trading fallacy for fallacy, and try to introduce common ground that can help resolve disputes by remaining respectful of differences, even about issues personally quite important to them. When we support a thesis (such as a position on one of the above ethical issues) with a clear and well-structured argument, we allow and invite others to engage with us in more constructive fashion. We say essentially, “Here is my thesis and here are my reasons for holding it. If you don’t agree with my claim, then show me what is wrong with my argument, and I will reconsider my view, as any rational person should.”

When I debate ethical issues, what is my responsibility to people who are part of the dialogue?

When we evaluate (analyze) somebody else’s position on an ethical issue, we are not free to simply reject out-of-hand a conclusion we don’t initially agree with. To be reasonable, we must accept the burden of showing where the other person errs in his facts or reasoning. If we cannot show that there are errors in the person’s facts or reasoning, to be reasonable we must reconsider whether we should reject the other person’s conclusion.

By applying the common standards of critical thinking to our reasoning about ethical issues, our arguments will become less emotionally driven and more rational. Our reasoning will become less dependent upon unquestioned beliefs or assumptions that the other people in the conversation may not accept. We become better able to contribute to progressive public debate and conflict resolution through a well-developed ability to articulate a well-reasoned position on an ethical issue.

What are ethical judgments?

Ethical judgments are a subclass of value judgments. A value judgment involves an argument as to what is correct, superior, or preferable. In the case of ethics, the value judgment involves making a judgment, claim, or statement about whether an action is morally right or wrong or whether a person’s motives are morally good or bad. Ethical judgments often prescribe as well as evaluate actions, so that to state that someone (or perhaps everyone) ethically “should” or “ought to” do something is also to make an ethical judgment.

How can I distinguish ethical judgments from other kinds of value judgments?

If ethical judgments are a subclass of value judgments, how do we distinguish them?  Ethical judgments typically state that some action is good or bad, or right or wrong, in a specifically ethical sense. It is usually not difficult to distinguish non-ethical judgments of goodness and badness from ethical ones. When someone says “That was a good action, because it was caring,” or “That was bad action, because it was cruel” they are clearly intending goodness or badness in a distinctly ethical sense.

By contrast, non-moral value judgments typically say that something is good (or bad) simply for the kind of thing it is; or that some action is right or wrong, given the practical goal or purpose that one has in mind. “That’s a good car” or “That’s a bad bike” would not be considered to moral judgments about those objects. Goodness and badness here are still value judgments, but value judgments that likely track features like comfort, styling, reliability, safety and mileage ratings, etc.

The use of “should” or “ought to” for non-moral value judgments is also easy to recognize. “You ought to enroll early” or “You made the right decision to go to Radford” are value-judgments, but no one would say they are ethical judgments. They reflect a concern with wholly practical aims rather than ethical ones and with the best way to attain those practical aims.

What are ethical arguments?

Ethical arguments are arguments whose conclusion makes an ethical judgment. Ethical arguments are most typically arguments that try to show a certain policy or behavior to be either ethical or unethical. Suppose you want to argue that “The death penalty is unjust (or just) punishment” for a certain range of violent crimes. Here we have an ethical judgment, and one that with a bit more detail could serve as the thesis of a position paper on the death penalty debate.

An ethical judgment rises above mere opinion and becomes the conclusion of an ethical argument when you support it with ethical reasoning. You must say why you hold the death penalty to be ethically right or wrong, just or unjust. For instance, you might argue that it is unjust because of one or more of the reasons below:

  • It is cruel, and cruel actions are wrong.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • It disrespects human life.
  • In some states the penalty falls unevenly on members of a racial group.
  • The penalty sometimes results in the execution of innocent people.

Of course you could also give reasons to support the view that the death penalty is a just punishment for certain crimes. The point is that whichever side of the debate you take, your ethical argument should develop ethical reasons and principles rather than economic or other practical but non-moral concerns. To argue merely that the death penalty be abolished because that would save us all money is a possible policy-position, but it is essentially an economic argument rather than an ethical argument.

What is an ethical dilemma?

An ethical dilemma is a term for a situation in which a person faces an ethically problematic situation and is not sure of what she ought to do. Those who experience ethical dilemmas feel themselves being pulled by competing ethical demands or values and perhaps feel that they will be blameworthy or experience guilt no matter what course of action they take. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gives the example of a young Frenchman of military age during the wartime Nazi occupation who finds himself faced, through no fault of his own, with the choice of staying home and caring for his ailing mother or going off to join the resistance to fight for his country’s future:

He fully realized that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into despair…. Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous – and it might be frustrated on the way. (Sartre, 1977)

What is the role of values in ethical dilemmas?

Frequently, ethical dilemmas are fundamentally a clash of values. We may experience a sense of frustration trying to figure out what the ‘right’ thing to do is because any available course of action violates some value that we are dedicated to. For example, let’s say you are taking a class with a good friend and sitting next to him one day during a quiz you discover him copying answers from a third student. Now you are forced into an ethical decision embodied by two important values common to your society. Those values are honesty and loyalty. Do you act dishonestly and preserve your friend’s secret or do you act disloyal and turn them in for academic fraud?

Awareness of the underlying values at play in an ethical conflict can act as a powerful method to clarify the issues involved. We should also be aware of the use of value as a verb in the ethical sense. Certainly what we choose to value more or less will play a very significant role in the process of differentiating between outcomes and actions thereby determining what exactly we should do.

Literature and film are full of ethical dilemmas, as they allow us to reflect on the human struggle as well as presenting tests of individual character. For example in World War Z, Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt in the movie version) has to make a similar choice as Sartre’s Frenchman: between serving the world-community of humans in their just war against Zombies, and serving his own immediate family. It adds depth and substance to the character to see him struggling with this choice over the right thing to do.

What ethical dilemmas are more common in real life?

Rarely are we called on to fight zombies or Nazis, but that doesn’t mean we live in an ethically easy world. If you’ve ever felt yourself pulled between two moral choices, you’ve faced an ethical dilemma. Often we make our choice based on which value we prize more highly. Some examples:

  • You are offered a scholarship to attend a far-away college, but that would mean leaving your family, to whom you are very close. Values: success/future achievements/excitement vs. family/love/safety
  • You are friends with Jane, who is dating Bill. Jane confides in you that she’d been seeing Joe on the side but begs you not to tell Bill. Bill then asks you if Jane has ever cheated on him. Values: Friendship/loyalty vs. Truth
  • You are the official supervisor for Tywin. You find out that Tywin has been leaving work early and asking his co-workers to clock him out on time. You intend to fire Tywin, but then you find out that he’s been leaving early because he needs to pick up his child from daycare. Values: Justice vs. Mercy

You could probably make a compelling argument for either side for each of the above. That’s what makes ethical dilemmas so difficult (or interesting, if you’re not directly involved!)

What is an ethical violation?

Sometimes we are confronted with situations in which we are torn between a right and a wrong; we know what the right thing to do would be, but the wrong is personally beneficial, tempting, or much easier to do. In 2010, Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel discovered that some of his players were violating NCAA rules. He did not report it to anyone, as it would lead to suspensions, hurting the football team’s chances of winning. He was not torn between two moral choices; he knew what he should do, but didn’t want to jeopardize his career. In 2011, Tressel’s unethical behavior became public, OSU had to void its wins for the year, and he resigned as coach.

Ethics experts tend to think that ethical considerations should always trump personal or self-interested ones and that to resist following one’s personal desires is a matter of having the right motivation and the strength of will to repel temptation. One way to strengthen your “ethics muscles” is to become familiar with the ways we try to excuse or dismiss unethical actions.

How does self-interest affect people’s ethical choices?

In a perfect world, morality and happiness would always align: living ethically and living well wouldn’t collide because living virtuously—being honest, trustworthy, caring, etc.—would provide the deepest human happiness and would best allow humans to flourish. Some would say, however, that we do not live in a perfect world, and that our society entices us to think of happiness in terms of status and material possessions at the cost of principles. Some even claim that all persons act exclusively out of self-interest—that is, out of psychological egoism—and that genuine concern for the well-being of others—altruism—is impossible. As you explore an ethical issue, consider whether people making choices within the context of the issue are acting altruistically or out of self-interest.

 What is the difference between good ethical reasoning and mere rationalization?

When pressed to justify their choices, people may try to evade responsibility and to justify decisions that may be unethical but that serve their self-interest. People are amazingly good at passing the buck in this fashion, yet pretty poor at recognizing and admitting that they are doing so. When a person is said to be rationalizing his actions and choices, this doesn’t mean he is applying critical thinking, or what we have described as ethical analysis. Quite the opposite: it means that he is trying to convince others—or often just himself—using reasons that he should be able to recognize as faulty or poor reasons. Perhaps the most common rationalization of unethical action has come to be called the Nuremberg Defense: ‘I was just doing what I was told to do—following orders or the example of my superior. So blame them and exonerate me.’ This defense was used by Nazi officials during the Nuremberg trials after World War II in order to rationalize behavior such as participation in the administration of concentration camps. This rationalization didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.