Ethics: A few basic principles and terminology
Definition: Broadly, ethics is “the study of standards of conduct and moral judgment.” More specifically, the idea of ethical behavior involves the ability to apply moral values of principles of right and wrong to determine human choices and proper courses of action. The discussion of ethical choice therefore involves identifying a moral code to serve as a basis for action and establishing the authority of those principles.
Traditional bases of moral values:
1. Divine Law—In this view, moral laws are given by God to human beings (E.g. the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus, etc). The authority of Divine Law issues from God’s supremacy over human beings. In the Western tradition, this is the Judeo-Christian view of ethics.
2. Universal Law—Moral principles are laws—or, as Kant called them, imperatives) that we give to ourselves as rational beings. Theses laws then are part of our humanity and have as their authority the dictates of pure reason. Since we wish to be reasonable human beings, we submit our actions to these imperatives.
3. Social Contract—Here, moral principles derive from ideals of social cooperation (e.g. Locke, Rousseau, etc). The authority of the social contract is the desire to live peacefully and productively with other human beings and with our environment.
4. Promotion of happiness—Moral principles are codes of conduct which simultaneously promote one’s own happiness—ethical egoism—and the happiness of humanity—utilitarianism. The most ethical choice is that which best balances these two sometimes opposing goals.
5. Physical Superiority—In a democracy, the majority sets the dominant moral values simply because based on physically outnumbering the minority. In international or inter-tribal conflict, the more powerful group often imposes its values and will on the less powerful group. Often oversimplified as “might makes right,” the physical dimension of ethical justice requires careful consideration when used as a justification for action.
Evaluating ethical considerations: In order to discuss and evaluate the ethical ramifications of a decision or situation, we do the following:
1. Identify the values or principles at stake in the action, weighing their importance against one another if there is a conflict between them;
2. Choose the course of action most consistent with the highest of these values;
3. Assess responsibility—does the person choosing or performing the action accept full responsibility for the choice and its consequences?
N.B. This view of the ethical dimension of an action or decision assumes a measure of free will in the individual performing the action or making the decision. The ability to choose actions based on values—or its opposite, acting in ways that betray fundamental values—all presuppose the freedom of the individual to choose among competing claims or moral authorities .