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What Ethics Is and Is Not

Misconceptions About Ethics

There are many expressions of what ethics is. In a general sense, ethics (or moral philosophy) addresses fundamental questions such as:

How should I live my life? What sort of person do I want to be? What are my responsibilities to others?

It has been said that:

Ethics is all about what we do when no one is looking.

Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.

The one common thread is “what we do.” Ethics is all about actions and decisions. We face many challenges in life and the way we handle them speaks volumes about our character. In the end, our character embodies our values and is the sum of our behaviors.

Values are basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate attitudes or actions. Some values are ethical because they are universally accepted: honesty, trustworthiness, kindness, responsibility, and so on. Others are non-ethical; they pertain to individual desires but not universal ones: wealth, power, fame and prestige.

Ethics is about creating an environment that supports the expression of ethical values while keeping in check non-ethical values. This doesn’t mean the pursuit of non-ethical values is wrong. It simply means we should not allow them to rule our lives because it can lead to greedy, self-centered behavior without regard for others.

Ethics is not what we think or feel is right or wrong. Ethics is not relative to an individual’s desires and beliefs. Ethical relativism means each individual decides what is right and what is wrong in a particular circumstance. But, how can this be? If ethics was relative or situational, then one person might decide stealing is right to do when the theft is to right a perceive wrong while another might say stealing is always wrong because someone is taking something from someone else that doesn’t belong to him or her.

It’s just as important to understand the misconceptions about ethics.

  1. I must be perfect to be ethical.

  2. If I don’t know it’s wrong, it must be OK.

  3. Everybody else does it so why not me.

  4. If I don’t do it (i.e. take an ethical action), someone else will. This is the bystander effect.

  5. There is a difference between my personal ethics and professional ethics.

  6. If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.

Let’s take the last one. Laws are rules and regulations that create a minimum set of standards with specific penalties and consequences for violations. Many people equate law-abiding with ethics, a concept known as “ethical legalism.” In other words, if an action is legal it is, therefore, ethical. However, ethical people often go beyond what the law requires because the law cannot cover every situation a person might encounter. For example, lying or betraying the confidence of a friend is not illegal, but most people would consider it unethical.

In other situations, doing what is right may be ethically appropriate even if your actions violate the law. The following example illustrates how being law-abiding and being an ethical person can conflict. It is based on “The Trolley Problem,” a thought experiment in ethics, first introduced by British philosopher, Philippa Foot, in 1967. Read the facts of the case and choose between responses (1) – (5).

The Trolley Problem by Philippa Foot

A common ethical dilemma used to distinguish between philosophical reasoning methods is the following. Imagine that you are standing on a footbridge spanning some trolley tracks. You see that a runaway trolley is threatening to kill five people. Standing next to you, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people, is a railway worker wearing a large backpack. You quickly realize that the only way to save the people is to push the man off the bridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die, but the bulk of his body and the pack will stop the trolley from reaching the others. (You quickly understand that you can’t jump yourself because you aren’t large enough to stop the trolley, and there’s no time to put on the man’s backpack). What would you do and why?

Possible Responses:

  1. Push the railway worker onto the tracks in order to maximize well-bring (five people surviving is better than one).

  2. Push the railway worker onto the tracks because you are a virtuous person, and saving five lives is the type of charitable and compassionate act a virtuous person performs.

  3. Do not push the railway worker onto the tracks because that would be a form of killing, and killing is inherently wrong.

  4. Do not push the railway worker onto the tracks because killing is against the Ten Commandments.

  5. Do not push the railway worker onto the tracks because you feel aiding in a person’s death would be culturally inappropriate and illegal.

Is it ever ethically appropriate to take one life to save five others? The problem (and dilemma) is who are we to judge who is a good person, and should be saved, and who is a bad person? What if the railway worker is a humanitarian? What if a murderer? These are questions that make ethics “easier said than done.”

Categories: personal ethics, philosophy of ethics, moral decision making

Key words: ethics, values, personal responsibility, moral decision making

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