Sometimes the only exposure my students will have to the study of ethics is (sorry, ethical philosophers) me and my “freeze-dried, snap-frozen, instant peas” version of the study of ethical issues. (In the land of the unethical, the mono-principled man is king?)
Here are a quick five things that loosely summarise my loose summaries.
- Ethics, Morals and Truth are Different Things. Morals are a person’s standards of belief concerning acceptable behaviour (we often throw around words like good and bad here). Ethics are the set of moral principles that guide a person’s behaviour or that of a group. Truth is the set of things that are real and factual, or those things that are accepted as true. Does that clear it up? Things that are true can be part of an unethical set of beliefs put together by immoral people. Immoral people can actually behave ethically consistently while still appear unethical and immoral from your group. Ethics often require you to start juggling things to work out a best or most consistent course of action, which is a luxury that we generally don’t have with the truth.
- Being Good is Not the Same Thing as Trying to Do the Right Thing. Trying to do the right thing is the field where your actions are guided by your ethical principles. Trying to be the best person you can be (Hello, Captain America) is virtue ethics. Both being good and doing the right thing can be guided by rules or by looking at outcomes but one is concerned who you are trying to be and the other is concerned with what you are trying to do. Yes, this means you can be a total ratbag as long as you behave the right way in the face of every ethical dilemma. (My apologies to any rats with bags.)
- You Can Follow Rules Or You Can Aim For The Best Outcome (Or Do Both, Actually). There are two basic breakdowns I’ve mentioned before: one follows rules and by doing that then the outcome doesn’t matter, the other tries to get the best outcome and this excuses any rules you break on the way to your good outcome. Or you can mix them together and hybridise it, even throwing in virtue ethics, which is what we tend to do because very few of us are moral philosophers and most of us are human beings. 🙂
- Consistency is Important. If you make decisions one way when it’s you and another way when it’s someone else then there’s a very good chance that you’re not applying a consistent ethical framework, you’re rationalising. (Often referred to as special pleading because you are special and different.) If you treat one group of people one way, and another completely differently, then I think you can guess that your ethics are too heavily biassed to actually be considered consistent – or all that ethical.
- Questioning Your Existing Frameworks Can Be Very Important. The chances that you managed to get everything right as you moved into adulthood is, really, surprisingly low, especially as most ethical and moral thinking is done in response to situations in your life. However, it’s important to think about how you can change your thinking in a way that forms a sound and consistent basis to build your ethical thinking upon. This can be very, very challenging, especially when the situation you’re involved in is particular painful or terrifying.
And that’s it. A rapid, shallow run through a deeply complex and rewarding area that everyone should delve into at some stage in their lives.