What are Ethics?

What are Ethics?

Ethics are simply, how we determine right from wrong. Like any subject, sometimes ethics is taught poorly. It becomes terribly abstract. For me, ethics are very practical and down to earth. It’s the immediate question, how should I act right now? How do we live together right now?

Ethics deals with big issues, such as:

  • Now that we know how to clone mammals, should we? Should we clone humans?
  • If a lady is 95 years old and has cancer, should doctors engage in extraordinarily expensive and heroic cancer treatments? What if the cancer is terminal, and the cancer treatments will only buy her a few more months?
  • We now know how to recognize the gene that makes some people more likely to get some kinds of cancers. If an unborn child is born with the gene that makes cancer more likely, should the pregnancy be stopped? Should their insurance be raised?
  • But ethics doesn’t have to deal with life-and-death issues. Ethics also deals with everyday issues like:
  • Is it right to sneak candy into the movie theater, rather than pay the exorbitant prices for theater candy?
  • If the store clerk gives me too much change, do I have to return the money?
  • If I’m 64½ years old, can I say I’m 65 in order to get the senior discount?

And ethics plays into criminal justice issues:

  • Is it okay to peek, to see if its actually worth getting a warrant?
  • Is it okay to lie on the witness stand, if you know for sure the guy is guilty? After all, suspects and their lawyers lie.
  • If you catch a guy for speeding, and are deciding whether to give him a warning or a ticket, is it right to decide based on whether or not he’s a jerk?
  • Is it ethical to tell a suspect that you have their fingerprints at the crime scene, to see if they’ll confess?

Ethical issues can be as simple as getting up in the morning, taking a shower, getting dressed, and eating breakfast. When you take a shower, where does the energy come from to heat the water? From a clean renewable source? Or from coal, which creates acid rain, puts mercury into the environment, and facilitate climate change? Is the soap and shampoo you use made of biodegradable ingredients?  Or will it pollute the groundwater for years to come? When you get dressed, where do your clothes come from? From a sweatshop in Guatemala where people are paid slave wages? How would you know? Does it matter?  When you cook your egg for breakfast, did it come from a free range chicken? Or a factory chicken, where the chicken spends their whole life in a tiny cage? Do you care? Does the chicken care? Those are all ethical issues, even though we typically choose not to clutter our brain with the answers. Some ethical issues we care a lot about. Other ethical issues are beneath our level of concern. The important thing is to understand that they are ethical issues, even though we may not concern ourselves with them.


What Ethics are Not

How do we know what is right and wrong? That’s the question of ethics. There are other related questions, which are not a part of ethics. The issues below are not ethics, but on each of them there is overlap with ethics.


Ethics is Not a Question of What’s Legal or Illegal

Some people reduce ethics to law. This is preferred by some people because it is easy. It is pretty clear what  is lawful or unlawful. The murky waters of ethical conduct are not always so easily identified. Unethical behaviors tend to be a much larger class of behaviors that unlawful activities.

Certainly, there is overlap. What is illegal is usually unethical, and what is legal is often ethical. But the U.S. Government’s treatment of the Native Americans, beginning in the late 1500s was both very legal but profoundly unethical. Slavery in the 19th century was legal and unethical. Helping slaves escape was illegal, but many people at the time not only saw it as ethical, they saw it as their moral duty. Helping Jews escape the Nazis was illegal, but no reasonable person today would say it was unethical.

Some business people might see anything that is legal as ethical, which of course, is a dangerous assumption. It was not illegal, or even against policy to launch the space shuttle Challenger in the freezing cold. But the discussion before they launched was profoundly unethical. What if you’re an engineer and you don’t buy the absolute best materials when you build a Minnesota bridge? Not illegal. Or what if you skimp on quality rivets, like they did for the Titanic? Should businesses be expected to buy the absolute best and most expensive rivets and materials?

In the United States, It’s not against the law for a married person to have an affair. We like the freedom to be able to screw up our own lives. Is having an affair unethical? Yes. Illegal? No.

So, is there overlap between ethics and law? Of course. Are they the same? No.


Ethics are Not the Same as Societal Norms

Societal norms are rules we have that help us to live together. In the United States, we drive on the right side of the road. That’s not really an ethical issue, it’s simply a way to avoid us getting in a lot of crashes. No one thinks the British are unethical because they drive on the left side of the road (they might be wrong, but not unethical).


Ethics are Not the Same as Being Polite and Impolite

Politeness are little rules that help order our world. We know (usually) not to burp in public or to wear shorts and t-shirts to a formal occasion. We know not to drink out of a stranger’s water glass in a restaurant. We know how to behave in an elevator. Good and bad manners are helpful in getting us through the day with a minimum of embarrassment and social unrest. However, they are not the same thing as ethics. Sometimes impoliteness is unethical, but not always.


Ethics are Not the Same as a Social Custom

In some parts of the world, Muslim women must stay at home all day, and they are not allowed to go to school. Some Muslim cultures would find that unethical, other Muslim cultures would see it good and proper. Most people in western culture would judge that custom as unethical (although, in this country, we still pay women much less than men for the same job).

Social customs might be judged ethical or unethical, but social customs are not the same as ethics.


Ethics is Not the Same as Risk Assessment

Some people have reduced ethics to “how not to get sued.” While not getting sued is a fine thing, it’s not the same as ethics.


Ethics is Not the Same as Being Evil or Good

Evil is willfully, intentionally causing pain and harm to innocent people.  Being unethical is not being evil, and being ethical is not about being good.  Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez, wasn’t an evil man, he was just a doofus; unethical and a doofus, but not evil. The technicians at Chernobyl when it melted down weren’t evil, just idiots (and unethical). Hazelwood and the nuclear technicians did unethical things, but that did not make them evil. Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden were evil and unethical.

There’s an old saying: “Great evil is achieved by a few; Great bungling is achieved by many.” The fact of the matter is that stupidity is more common than malice, and incompetence is more common than the process of willfully, intentionally causing harm to others. Of course, Incompetence can become unethical very quickly—when the person who is incompetent works to cover up the mistakes.

The point is, incompetence or evil are not the same as being unethical. Overlap? Of course. The same? No.


The Field of Ethics

The field of ethics is usually divided into three broad areas. Metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.

1.  Metaethics

Metaethics deal with the birds-eye, philosophical view. Where do ethical principles come from? Are they universal truths? Social constructions? Opinions? Is there a religious base to ethics?

Do ethics change depending on the situation? This is often called ethical relativism, meaning the rules for understanding what is right and wrong change depending on the situation. For example, its wrong to kill; but if a madman has two dozen hostages and is threatening to kill them, then it’s okay to kill the madman.

Or are the things that are wrong always wrong? Plato said that ethics are universal, in the same way numbers are. William of Occam said that ethics were created by God and put into our hearts, so we would always know what is right and wrong. Most people would say that its never right to torture a child. But, according to polls, about half of the people in the U.S. say its okay to torture terrorists. Is torture always wrong? Or is torture sometimes wrong and sometimes justified, depending on who you do it to?

Where do ethics come from? Do they come from God? Did we evolve to have them to protect the species? Are they a part of our culture? Are we hard-wired to have them, or did we learn them?

Who does ethics apply to? Why didn’t the Americans in the 17-19th century see that their treatment of American Indians and African Americans was wrong?

These large, philosophical questions are the purview of metaethics.


2.  Normative Ethics

A norm is a standard, something with which we measure our actions. So, normative ethics is the study of how we determine what is right and wrong. What are the thinking processes we go through to determine what is right and wrong? What are the emotional processes that help us decide? What are the social processes that influence our decision?

what should our standards be? Do we decide the morality of something based on the outcome? Or is the ethical nature decided by the act itself?  Do we let emotion decide what’s right and wrong? Do we just kind of know the right thing to do?

While there are many standards people have for ethics, most of those standards fall into two areas: 1) Utilitarian–something is right if the outcome is good; and 2) Deontological–something is right if the act itself is right.


3.  Applied Ethics

Applied ethics takes a look at individual questions, usually big questions that have lots of disagreement. Some examples might be:

  • Euthanasia.
  • Abortion.
  • Assisted suicide.
  • Stem cell research.
  • What is the line between the rights of the individual and the needs of society?

New technologies often give us new applied ethical questions to ponder. So, the study of applied ethics is to explore those individual questions and figure them out.



The study of ethics, then, is simply how we decide between right and wrong. All of us have different understandings and different rationales. The critical thing is to see the ethical nature of the issue, and to know how we figure it out.


2010, Jim Ollhoff, PhD



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