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What is Ethics? Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer A few years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked.

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Presentation on theme: "What is Ethics? Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer A few years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked."— Presentation transcript:


2 What is Ethics? Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer A few years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, "What does ethics mean to you?"

3 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.

4 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.

5 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 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.

6 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.

7 What, then, is ethics? Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well based 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.

8 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)

9 Ethics vs. Compliance As scandals swirl around the White House, President Bush has ordered his staff to take a refresher course in ethics. [See related Newsline story, Nov. 14.] Not a moment too soon, many would say. But there are two problems with the president's directive. First, as any organization knows, the tone is set at the top. So it is a mistake for the president to exempt himself from such a class. If he thinks that ethics in the White House is important (and who doesn't?), then he, as the leader in charge, must also attend the session, at least to demonstrate that the classes are serious, not just a public relations stunt.Newsline The second problem with such an ethics course is that it is about ethics in name only. In fact, the course is about compliance with a set of laws that basically address conflicts of interest and, in this particular instance, rules for handling classified information. The assumption behind this kind of ethics class is that ethics is rule-following. It is the mistaken idea that ethics and following the law are the same thing. Most of the time ethics and the law overlap but not always. Just last week Rosa Parks was honored by this nation for having the courage to have broken an unjust law. In hindsight, everyone -- from the president to Supreme Court justices to school children -- recognized that there are times in which laws are themselves unethical, and the right thing to do is not to comply with them.

10 But the more serious problem with equating ethics with rule-following is that ethics often demands more than memorizing and living by a set of rules. A study done of law school students, for example, shows that their ability to make sound ethical judgments is impaired by their three years in law school because ethics is presented in a rule-based manner. The conclusion that students reach is that all that is necessary to be ethical is to follow the letter of the law. Anything that is done to further your own case that isn't illegal is, by this definition, ethically acceptable. Ethics -- real ethics -- requires the use of judgment, and this is distinct from rule-following. Judgment is acquired by struggling with situations that aren't clear-cut; it requires self-reflection and an openness to alternative possibilities. Refresher courses in ethics is a fine idea -- if ethics is broadly defined and if the person in charge of the organization participates in those courses. But courses that focus on ethics as mere rules make matters worse. Ethics classes that discuss the dilemmas of wealth and poverty, war and peace, prosperity and the environment, security and human rights, and immigration and national identity are classes that will make a difference. This is harder than what the president proposes. But whoever thought ethics was easy was fooling more than himself. -Arthur Dobrin, Professor of Humanities, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY

11 Law vs. Ethics

12 What is Ethics and Morality? Ethos (Greek) and Mores (Latin) are terms having to do with custom, habit, and behavior. Ethics is the study of morality. This definition raises two questions: (a) What is morality? (b) What is the study of morality?

13 What is Ethics? Branch of Philosophy: –What is ….. –Good Other Branches? What is…. Knowledge In the world Beautiful Our Relationship to Other People

14 What is Morality? morality can be defined as: a system of rules for guiding human conduct, and principles for evaluating those rules. Two points are worth noting in this definition: (i) morality is a system; and (ii) it is a system comprised of moral rules and principles. moral rules can be understood as "rules of conduct," which are very similar to "policies."

15 Summary Ethics: Ethics: Study of morality Study of morality Branch of Philosophy Branch of Philosophy Morality Morality System of Rules System of Rules Rules of conduct Rules of conduct

16 Wrong?? Why do we do wrong things? Why do we disagree on what is right? How do we justify doing wrong things?

17 "Roadblocks" to Moral Discourse 1. People disagree about morality; so how can we reach agreement on moral issues? 2. Who am I/Who are we to judge others and to impose my/our values on others? 3. Isn't morality simply a private matter? 4. Isn't morality simply a matter that different cultures and groups should determine for themselves?

18 People Disagree on Solutions to Moral Issues But: (i) Experts in other fields of study, such as science and math, also disagree. (ii) There is common agreement about some moral questions. (iii) People do not always distinguish between "disagreements about factual matters" and "disagreements on general principles in disputes involving morality.

19 Who am I to Judge Others? We need to distinguish between: Persons Making Judgments and Persons Being Judgmental, and Judgments Involving Condemnations vs. Judgments Involving Evaluations Also, we are sometimes required to make judgments about others.

20 Ethics is Simply a Private Matter Morality is essentially personal in nature and therefore a private matter? Private morality" is essentially an oxymoron or contradictory notion. Morality is a public phenomenon (Gert).

21 Morality is relative A Matter for Individual Cultures to Decide A moral system is dependent on, or relative to, a particular culture or group. Ethical Relativism. Need to distinguish between: cultural relativism Different cultures have different beliefs about what constitutes morally right and wrong behavior. moral relativism no universal standard of morality is possible because different people have different beliefs about what is right and wrong. anything goes.

22 Summary of Logical Flaws in the Discussion Stoppers Stopper #2 Who am I to judge others? __________________ 1. Fails to distinguish between the act of judging and being a judgmental person. 2. Fails to distinguish between judging as condemning and judging as evaluating. 3. Fails to recognize that sometimes we are required to make judgments Stopper #3 Ethics is imply a private matter. _________________ 1. Fails to recognize that morality is essentially a public system. 2. Fails to note that personally-based morality can cause major harm to others. 3. Confuses moral choices with individual or personal preferences. Stopper #1 People disagree on solutions to moral issues. __________________ 1. Fails to recognize that experts in many areas disagree on key issues in their fields. 2. Fails to recognize that there are many moral issues on which people agree. 3. Fails to distinguish between disagreements about principles and disagreements about facts. Stopper #4 Morality is simply a matter for individual cultures to decide. ___________________ 1. Fails to distinguish between descriptive and normative claims about morality. 2. Assumes that people can never reach common agreement on some moral principles. 3. Assumes that a system is moral because a majority in a culture decides it is moral.

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