Professional Ethics

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A Mini-Course in Ethics

The Ethical Question is the question of the morality of free and responsible human conduct. It is the question of right, of wrong, and of duty, in man's conscious and deliberate activity. The department of philosophy which answers this question is called Moral Philosophy or Ethics.

This science grows out of the rest of philosophy. For when we have a philosophical grasp of the possibility of achieving certitude and of right formulas for reasoning out truth, then we are necessarily aware of the need of the true program for right human living.

General Ethics


a. Human Acts;
b. Ends of Human Acts;
c. Norms of Human Acts;
d. Morality of Human Acts;
e. Properties and Consequences of Human Acts.

a) Human Acts

The term human act has a fixed technical meaning. It means an act (thought, word, deed, desire, omission) performed by a human being when he is responsible; when he knows what he is doing and wills to do it. An act is perfectly human when it is done with full knowledge and full consent of the will, and with full and unhampered freedom of choice. If the act is hampered in any way, it is less perfectly human; if it is done without knowledge or consent it is not a human act at all. An act done by a human being but without knowledge and consent is called an act of a person but not a human act. In the terminology of classical realistic philosophy, a human act is actus humanus; an act of a person is actus hominis.

The essential elements of a human act are three: knowledge, freedom, actual choice.

(1) Knowledge: A person is not responsible for an act done in ignorance, unless the ignorance is the person's own fault, and is therefore willed (vincible ignorance), in which case he has knowledge that he is in ignorance and ought to dispel it. Thus, in one way or another, knowledge is necessary for responsible human activity.

(2) Freedom: A person is not responsible for an act over which he has no control, unless he deliberately surrenders such control by running into conditions and circumstances which rob him of liberty. Thus, in one way or another, freedom is necessary for every human act.

(3) Actual choice or voluntariness: A person is not responsible for an act which he does not will, unless he wills to give up his self-control (as a man does, for instance, in allowing himself to be hypnotized, or by deliberately becoming intoxicated). Thus, in one way or another, voluntariness or actual choice enters into every human act.

Now, a human act is a willed act. It proceeds from the will, following the knowledge and judgment of the mind or intellect. Since what refers to the freewill is usually described as moral, a human act is a moral act. Since the will is free, a human act is a free act.

A human act comes from the will directly or indirectly. When the act itself is the choice of the will, it comes directly from the will and is said to be willed in se or in itself. When the act comes indirectly from the will, inasmuch as the will chooses rather what causes or occasions the act than the act itself, it is said to be willed in its cause or in causa. Thus a man who wills to become intoxicated, wills it directly or in se; a man who does not wish to become intoxicated, but who seeks entertainment where, as experience tells him, he is almost sure to become intoxicated, wills the intoxication indirectly or in causa. This distinction of direct and indirect willing (or direct and indirect voluntariness) raises a notable issue, and we have here two of the most important principles (that is, fundamental guiding truths) in all ethics.

These are:

(1) The Principle of Indirect Voluntariness: A person is responsible for the evil effect of a cause directly willed when three conditions are met:

when he can readily foresee the evil effect, at least in a general way;

when he is free to refrain from doing what causes the evil effect; and

when he is bound to refrain from...
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