Questions and answers about ethics

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1. What is ethics?

Ethics is the study of right versus wrong. The key idea that defines right and wrong is the concept of obligation. A right act is one which fulfills an obligation. A wrong act is one that transgresses an obligation.

There are many forms of obligation: obligations to self, to others, to society, to the world. Obligations are annoying but essential. People who do not fulfill their obligations are not living as they should. And it can be shown that ignoring obligations is a likely route to failure in life.

Related concepts of ethics include “ethical” and “unethical,” “moral” and “immoral,” “fair” and “unfair,” “legal” and “illegal,” as well as more specialized terms like “noble,” “kind,” “honest,” “generous;” “insensitive,” “manipulative,” “tricky,” “exploitative,” and ”sleazy.” If you find yourself using these words to evaluate a situation, you are probably dealing with a moral issue. If you notice that people are applying these words to your own conduct, you may have a moral problem yourself.

2. Are all ethical judgments “subjective” or “culturally relative?”

To say that a judgment is “subjective” is to say that it is not generally shared by others. To say that a judgment is “culturally relative” is to say that it holds in one culture but not for others. Now judgments like “Parents should take good care of their children” are in fact generally shared, and maintained in all cultures. To be a parent means that there is another person for whom you are responsible. So at least some moral judgments are objective and universal, not subjective or culturally relative.

3. Are there any tests which determine what is right and wrong?

Ethics is complicated, and there are no absolute rules for justifying moral judgments. But there are some simple tests that often reveal that something immoral is going on.

I. The Golden Rule Test.

Suppose you are considering doing something that affects other people in a negative way. Ask, “How would I like it if others did this to me?” If you wouldn’t like the act done to you, it is probably immoral to do it to others.

II. The Universal Generalization Test.

Suppose that you are considering doing an act called “A.” Ask, “What if everybody did A?” If the result of everybody doing A would be against your interests, A is probably immoral.

Example: Sally is getting ready for a math test, and goes to her professor for help. The professor is not around, but Mary discovers a copy of the test on the professor’s desk. She takes the test and uses it to prepare for the exam. But if everyone had the test in advance, everyone would get a perfect score. The test would be thrown out, and that would be no help to Sally. So it would be wrong for Sally to use the test.
III. The New York Times Test.

Often people do things that are immoral because they are confident that no one will find out about them. Accordingly a good test of the morality of an action is to ask, “What if my act today were reported tomorrow on the front page of the New York Times?” If you would be ashamed to have this happen, A is probably immoral.

IV. The Promise Keeping Test

A great deal of social life revolves around the making of agreements and promises. Sometimes the agreements are public and explicit; sometimes they are unstated and implicit. When you take on a new role, or a new job, there are implicit understandings about the duties that go with the role or job. If you do not fulfill these duties, you are in a sense breaking a promise. The Promise Keeping Test asks, “If I do this, will I be breaking some promise that I made?” If the answer is yes, the act is probably immoral

Example: Mark works for a pharmaceutical company and as a result of his job learns that the company is about to receive FDA approval for a new drug that is sure to increase company profits. He tells his best friend Peter to buy the company’s stock as it is likely that the stock will rise. Mark has signed an agreement with the firm not to profit personally from inside knowledge. In this case, the agreement implies an understanding not to use inside information to make profits for others. Mark has broken an implicit promise to the company when he tips off his friend.

Exception to the rule: A promise to do something immoral is never binding.

V. The Injury Test.

The fifth test is the simplest: Ask, “If I do this, will some innocent person get hurt?” If the answer is yes, the act may well be immoral.

Exception to the rule: If people voluntarily assume risks, in most cases they cannot complain if they suffer harm when the risks are realized.

4. When am I excused from blame for my misdeeds?

If a person has done something wrong, there may nevertheless be a good excuse for what he has done, if there is, he cannot be blamed for his wrongdoing. There are two excuses generally accepted in ethics.
Good excuse 1: “I did not know, and had no obligation to know, the consequences of my act.”

Example: Smith opens a can of peas, which explodes and injures his dinner guest. Smith had no idea, and no obligation to know, that the can was over pressurized.

Note: The “excuse of ignorance” is generally available to persons who are underage, and persons who are mentally ill.
Good excuse 2: “I couldn’t avoid doing the act.”

Example: Smith discovers that his brakes have inexplicably failed, must choose between hitting one person and hitting five people. He cannot be morally blamed if he hits one because it is unavoidable that he hit someone.

People often give bad excuses for their acts. Here are some typical bad excuses:
Bad excuse 1. “Everybody does it.”

The fact that everybody does something doesn’t make it right, just as the fact that everybody believes something doesn’t make it true.

Bad excuse 2. “I did nothing illegal.”

The rules of morality are stricter than the rules of law. A legal act can still be a wrongful act.

Note: Often, when people are caught breaking the law, they give the parallel bad excuse. “I did nothing unethical.” This excuse is always invalid because citizens have an ethical obligation to obey the law.
Bad excuse 3. “No one got hurt.”

Many immoral acts hurt no one. A lie that makes everyone happy is still a lie.

Bad excuse 4. “Ethics is all just about personal attitudes.”

Ethics involves attitudes of approval and disapproval. But the fact that ethics involves attitudes doesn’t show that it is all based on attitudes. It is not true that murder is wrong because we disapprove of it. Rather we disapprove of murder because we think it is wrong.

5. Why should I do the right thing, when the wrong thing will profit me personally?
The history of ethics has generated many answers to this question. What follows is just a small sample:
(1.) If you ignore the rules in one case, you will ignore them in others. Sooner or later you will get caught, and land in jail.
(2.) If God exists, He is just and will reward good people and punish bad people. So, if He exists, in the long run, immorality does not pay.
Note: Most philosophers consider these first two responses very unsatisfactory. A person who does the right thing solely from fear of punishment is not morally motivated.

(3.) When you act, you make yourself into a certain kind of person. For example, a person who steals makes himself into a thief. If you ask, “What will this act turn me into?” instead of “what will I get out of this act?” you may find it much less desirable to do wrong.

(4.) A person who lives without ethical principles sets no limits on his own conduct. But it follows that no matter what he does, he will never be satisfied, because he will always want more than he has.
(5.) An immoral person is an inconsistent person: he wants others to obey rules that he is not prepared to obey himself. An inconsistent person is an irrational person, and an irrational person has lost that one quality that separates human beings from animals –rational thought.
(6.) Every person has goals in life, but most goals are defined by rules. If your goal is to win a race in the Olympics, to succeed you must obey the Olympic rules. If you cheat and “win” the race, you are not a winner but a cheat and a failure, even if they put the medal around your neck.
(7.) The moral act, by definition, is that one that you should do. So the question, “Why should I do what is moral?” is the silly question “Why should I do what I should do?” Basically one should do the moral thing –simply because it is right.
6. What should I read, in order to gain some understanding of ethical theory?

The best introduction to ethics for beginners is James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (McGraw Hill, 1986). As it is used in many Baruch philosophy courses, it can be found in the Baruch Bookstore. Rachels’ discussion of egoism, the theory that one should always pursue self-interest, is especially lucid.

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