Ethics, also referred to as moral philosophy, is the study of morality, the study of good and bad, of right and wrong. It’s concerned with actions, with behaviors; it’s concerned with classifying and distinguishing between behaviors that are moral (ethical, good, right) and those that are immoral (unethical, bad, and wrong).
Before reading further about ethics, consider some of the popular beliefs about ethics, perhaps one or more of which you hold personally.
For each of the following statements place a T (for True) if you feel the statement accurately explains what ethical behavior is and an F (for False) if you feel the statement does not accurately explain what ethical behavior is.
_____ 1. My behavior is ethical when I feel (in my heart) that I’m doing the right thing.
_____ 2. My behavior is ethical when it is consistent with my religious beliefs.
_____ 3. My behavior is ethical when it is legal.
_____ 4. My behavior is ethical when the majority of reasonable people would consider it ethical.
_____ 5. My behavior is ethical when the effect of the behavior is more beneficial than harmful.
All five of these statements are (generally) False; none of them state a useful explanation of what is and what is not ethical.
(1) Statement 1 is False simply because people often do unethical things they feel are morally justified. Jack the Ripper killing prostitutes is a good historical example but there are many current ones such as stalking (I’m so in love I need to be with this person) or insurance scams (My family needs the money more than the insurance company). Even though Jack, the stalker, and the scam artist may feel justified in their own minds, it doesn’t make the behavior moral or ethical.
(2) Statement 2 must be False when you realize that different religions advocate very different kinds of behavior, often behaviors that contradict one another. Examples abound in almost every issue of a daily newspaper.
(3) Statement 3 must be false when you realize so much discrimination against certain people is perfectly legal in many parts of the world, and, in many countries, war (even preemptive war) is legal.
(4) Statement 4 is False because the thinking of the majority changes with the times and has often proven to be extremely immoral. The burning of people supposed to be witches or of those who spoke out against majority opinion (as in the Inquisition) are good examples.
(5) Statement 5 comes the closest to being possibly and sometimes true; but it’s more generally false. The reason it’s more false than true is that the burning of witches, for example, was in the interest of the majority as was slavery and discrimination against gay men and lesbians. But, despite this majority interest, we’d readily recognize these actions as immoral. On the other hand, in deciding whether to do one thing or another, it may prove useful to weigh the good against the bad that would result from each action.
BTW, I got the idea for this self-test after reading “What Is Ethics?” (www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/whatisethics.html) and think these 5 statements would make for great discussion in small groups or with the class as a whole.
Three Areas of Ethics
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(www.iep.utm.edu/e/ethics.htm) the field of ethics consists of three areas:
• Metaethics concerns itself with the origin and meaning of ethical principles—where they come from (God? Social conventions? Cultural norms?) and the meanings of various ethical concepts (What is responsibility? What is right? What is wrong?).
• Normative ethics concerns itself with articulating the standards of right and wrong; this is the area that proposes specific ethical principles (for example, don’t lie, don’t willfully hurt another person). It is from normative ethics that we learn the principles governing what is ethical and what is unethical.
• Applied ethics concerns itself with the ethical implications of controversial issues (Is capital punishment ethical? Is preventing marriage to same sex couples ethical? Is it ethical to engage in war?).
These three areas often intersect. For example, the ethics of capital punishment is clearly applied ethics since it focuses on a controversial issue but it also draws on the insights of metaethics (Where do the rights to kill another person come from? Who has the right to kill another human being?) and on normative ethics (By what standard does one person claim the right to kill another person? Under what conditions might it be justifiable to kill another person?)
Two Approaches to Ethics
So, when is behavior ethical and when is it unethical? Lots of people have come up with lots of theories.
If you take an objective view, you’d claim that the ethical nature of an act—any act—depends on standards that apply to all people in all situations at all times. If lying, advertising falsely, using illegally obtained evidence, and revealing secrets, for example, are considered unethical, then they’d be considered unethical regardless of the circumstances surrounding them or of the values and beliefs of the culture in which they occur.
If you take a subjective view, you’d claim that the morality of an act depends on a specific culture’s values and beliefs as well as on the particular circumstances. Thus, from a subjective position you would claim that the end might justify the means—a good result can justify the use of unethical means to achieve that result. You would further argue that lying is wrong to win votes or to sell cigarettes, but that lying can be ethical if the end result is positive (such as trying to make someone who is unattractive feel better by telling them they look great, or telling a critically ill person that they’ll feel better soon.)
Each field of study defines what is and what is not ethical to its concerns (in the normative ethical sense). Here are just a few to highlight some communication-oriented codes as well as a few to indicate the range of associations that developed and, in some cases, enforce such codes:
• The National Communication Association Ethical Credo (www.natcom.org)
• Bloggers’ Ethics (www.cyberjouranlist.net/news/000215.php)
• Online Journalism (www.ojr.org/ojr/wiki/Ethics/print.htm)
• Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (www.rtndf.org./ethics/coe.html)
• National Education Association Code of Ethics for the Education Profession (www.nea.org/aboutnea/code/html)
• American Medial Association Principles of Medical Ethics (www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category)
• Merrill Lynch’s Code of Ethics for Financial Professionals (www.ml.com/cms/templates/so)
Try looking up the code of ethics for the profession you’re in or planning on entering.