Ethics & the Human Condition

Fear is a lack of curiosity.

Go beyond what is right and wrong and into the reasons and impacts.

1) What is Ethics?

What are ethics? Ethics are the rules or standards governing the conduct by which you live your life and make your decisions. One of the best ways of thinking about ethics is to take a quick look at what you believe and then think about how you would react if those beliefs were challenged.

Your ethics govern your thought process so that when a problem arises or you need to try and work your way through a situation, your solution is based on your ethics. So exactly where do these comes from?

What are ethics? Where do they come from? Ethics are not born in a vacuum. Ethics are more like a jigsaw puzzle that is thrown together over time, that when complete makes up who you are and what you believe. From our earliest days of life, we start to learn from those around us. These learned behaviors add to the traits that we are already born with and help to shape us into the person we will become. As part of this learning process, we develop what will become our norms.

Norms are our everyday way of looking at how the world around us works. They help us to understand our place in the world. Norms also govern how we react to different situations and problems that arise around us. These are our ethics; the things we learn as we grow that govern the rest of our lives.
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follow.jpgWhat are Ethics? Why is Having it Right Important?

Ethics are important for a number of reasons. First, ethics are important because they give us a baseline for understanding the concepts of right and wrong. Ethics help us to have a ready understanding of how to react to a certain situation long before that situation happens.

There are situational ethics whereby we react as the situation dictates, but our reaction is due to our built-in value system that tells us what to do, not the situation itself.

The major problem with having situational ethics is that they change with the situation. Having a standard of ethics that governs us each day of our lives means we always know how we are to live no matter what. There is no second-guessing and no changing our ethics according to what we feel at the moment.

Second, ethics are important because they act as our mediator when dealing or coming into contact with other people. If we have the wrong sense of ethics, we will react to people in a negative manner. But if our ethics are built on the truth, we will see life for what it is.

Third, ethics are important because we pass them onto others. We have the ability to show others the correct way to act and behave by remaining ethical in the way we live, regardless of whether it involves our personal or business life. Ethics help us to remain on stable ground in an ever-changing world, but a person’s ethics can change. At the heart of ethics are the integrity and values of the individual. If you can change the values and increase the integrity of the individual, you will change their ethics.

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Paul Zak is professor of Economics and Department Chair and director of the Center for Neuro-economics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. He's the author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. Zak spoke at the TED Global conference in July 2011 in Edinburgh. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

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(2) What is Ethics?

Developed by M. Velasquez, C. Andre, T. Shanks, S.J., and M.J. Meyer

Some years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, "What does ethics mean to you?" Among their 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.
  • I don't know what the word means.

These replies might be typical of our own. The meaning of ethics is hard to pin down, and the views many people have about ethics are shaky. Like Baumhart's first respondent, many people tend to equate ethics with their feelings. But being ethical is clearly not a matter of following one's feelings. A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing 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 also 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 old apartheid laws of present-day South Africa are grotesquely obvious examples of laws 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, in fact, ethical. But standards of behavior in society can deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is a good example of a morally corrupt society.

Moreover, if being ethical were doing "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 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 social 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 were doing 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-founded 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. 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 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 ethics because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons.

Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one's ethical standards. As mentioned above, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one's standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded. Ethics also means, then, the continuous effort of studying our own moral beliefs and our moral conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based.

This article appeared originally in Issues in Ethics IIE V1 N1 (Fall 1987)

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