What is Ethics?
A few years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, “What does ethics mean to you?” Among the replies were the following:
“Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong.” “Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs.”
“Being ethical is doing what the law requires.”
“Ethics consists of the standards of behavior our society accepts.”
These replies might be typical of your own. The meaning of “ethics” is hard to pin down and views of many rest on shaky ground.
Many people tend to equate ethics with their feelings. But being ethical is clearly not a matter of followings one’s feelings. A person following his or her feelings may not do what is right. In fact, feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical.
Nor should one identify ethics with religion. Most religions, of, course, advocate high ethical standards. Yet if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics applies as much to the behavior of the atheist as to that of the saint. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behavior. Ethics, however, cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion.
Being ethical is not the same as following the law. The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe. But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Our own pre-Civil War slavery laws and the apartheid laws of South Africa are examples that deviate from what is ethical.
Finally, being ethical is not the same as doing “whatever society accepts.” In any society, most people accept standards that are ethical. But standards of behavior in society can deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is good example of a morally corrupt society.
Moreover, if being ethical were to do “whatever society accepts” then to find out what is ethical, one would have to find out what society accepts. To decide what I should think about abortion, for example, I would have to take a survey of the American society and then conform my beliefs to whatever society accepts. But no one ever tries to decide an ethical issue by doing a survey. Further, the lack of a consensus on many issues makes it impossible to equate ethics with whatever society accepts. Some people accept abortion but many others do not. If being ethical is to do whatever society accepts, one would have to find an agreement on issues, which does not, in fact, exist.
What then, is ethics? Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well based standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Put another way anytime you ask yourself “what you should do,” the question involves an ethical decision. Ethics, for, example, refers to those standards that impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud. Ethical standards also include those that enjoin the virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty. And ethical standards include standards relating to rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury, and the right to privacy. Such standards are adequate standards of thinking because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons.
Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one’s ethical standards. In other words, ethics are standards or rules you set for yourself that you use to guide your efforts do what is right and wrong, or what you should do. For example, if a friend asks you to copy your homework, you must choose whether or not you will tell the teacher. Whenever you have to make a decision where your actions will impact someone else, you face an ethical dilemma. The decision is ethical because you must decide what your obligation is (especially when another...
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