What is Ethics?

Ethics is the foundation of knowledge that describes right/wrong or better/worse.  It applies to issues of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. It is universal.  It transcends culture, religion, and time.  It is conditional; not to be confused with relative.

Ethics is absolutely knowable but given ethical circumstances occur between two entities in time, many factors are involved in judging ethical acts.  Absolute right or wrong conditions are rare.  Typically, ethical acts fall somewhere along a grey scale – the space between black & white.  Right and wrong seem like relative terms when incorrectly applied to a grey world.  Better or worse is sometime the best approximation to truth we can obtain.



5 thoughts on What is Ethics?

  1. loving ethics is loving the society, no favoritism but only the transcendence of fairness and justice not clinging to culture, religion and time.

  2. Hi. I have started a Law & Ethics blog. See http://www.socialsecuritydisabilitylawyernc.us/DisabilityLawBlog/LawEthicsBlog.aspx

    I would like to have others contribute to the discussion, from different points of view. I am seeking a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and philosopher point of view. I have reviewed your website and your expertise in ethics is very relevant to the questions I will be discussing. If you have the time and interest, please review my Law & Ethics blog. I invite you to respond to the 1st question – is there a duty to help those who are suffering? I understand the limitations of a blog. Nonetheless, I believe the discussion has value. This question has many variations I plan to address in future blogs, such as – does it make a difference if a person’s suffering is caused by his own bad behavior? Where is the line between compassion and personal responsibility? David palettalaw@bellsouth.net

    • David,

      Thank you for contributing to the discussion. I am honored to be selected as “the philosopher”. You raise some interesting questions. I’ll start with the first one, “Is there a duty to help those who are suffering?”

      From an ethical perspective the correct answer is “it depends on the circumstance”… as all ethical situations are circumstantial. This question is too vague to be answered definitely from an ethical perspective.

      The phrasing of the question has an implicit bias; the words “duty”, “help”, and “suffering” imply the answer – Yes. A duty is something a person of virtue is compelled to do; the compulsion being an inherit drive to “do the right thing” from an ethical/moral perspective. Help is an ethically and morally founded word, as in harm/care. Suffering implies harm is being done to someone; another ethical/moral trigger. Helping those in suffering is almost always a positive thing. So the easy answer is Yes.

      You could have phrased the question another way, “Are you obligated to help a person or group of people who are suffering?” The word obligation means basically the same thing as duty except obligation has a negative connotation; it is something that is expected of you, from which you have little choice. “When you can’t say no, your yes’s mean less”.

      The cause and level of suffering would likely be a factor; for instance – Is the suffering self imposed; is it a repeated cycle of self inflicted suffering, etc. Your relationship to the entity may factor in – family, friend, stranger, member of a different group or species, non-living, such as the environment, etc. Given your level of empathy and your perspective of “your group”, these things may be irrelevant but they are typically considerations that need to be weighed from an ethical or moral perspective. The cause of the suffering is an ethical condition, the relationship of the other to you is a moral condition; the latter may be irrelevant from a strictly ethical perspective.

      Social Progress:
      “Social progress makes the well-being of all more and more the business of each.” – Henry George.
      Henry George was an economist/philosopher in the mid-eighteen hundreds. He is from the liberal school of philosophical thought that defines the aim of social progress as improving the welfare of an ever increasing percentage of people in perpetuity. As western societies have become wealthier and more liberal in their thinking, they have tended to try to mitigate personal suffering through social welfare programs. These programs are designed to alleviate the worse kinds of individual suffering through government provided programs that pool the resources of the many to help the few who are down and out.

      Government welfare programs also have the effect of individuals left to assume that “others” in suffering in their society will be taken care of by the government because that is one of its roles. They contribute indirectly by paying taxes that pay for these services and therefore a portion of compassion is outsource. As cold of a statement as that is, it’s likely a better thing than no assistance. With ethics, “better” is sometimes the best we can do.

      Does it make a difference if a person’s suffering is caused by his own bad behavior? Where is the line between compassion and personal responsibility?

      The cause of a person’s or group’s suffer may or may not compel others to come to their assistance. It typically does factor into another’s decision to help a given person or group. If someone is consistently irresponsible or self-destructive; can you help them? If someone does not want your help, can you help them? Should you try? These question get into the murky grey world where answers of “better” or “worse” are the closest approximations to truth we can gleam.

      Your moral/ethical frame work will determine how you emotionally internalize these problems. Your personal framework will determine your political framework. There is a reason more people are compelled to help a child suffering as opposed to helping a homeless person on a street. It is assumed that the child’s circumstances are not of their own making; where as a grown adult on the street has likely made many bad decisions or maybe “damaged” beyond repair. These assumptions may be unfair on an individual basis, but are likely generally true.

      We all have an emotional spectrum which defines the pain we feel and which allows us to empathize with the pain others are experiencing. Our spectrum of who falls into the group “Others” varies widely as well. An “other” can be anyone who is not you, your family, your friends, your city, state, national group, humans, animals, all living creatures, or the earth itself; so the spectrum that one internalizes can be quite small or quite large.

      From a pragmatic stand point, we only have so much time, energy, and resources. So if you are looking to prioritize you ability to help others in suffering, how you go about it matters. If you see an adult on the street, “helping” that person is a tricky question. Is your goal to help them with money so they can buy some comfort (food, water, clothes, shelter, drink, drugs, etc). Do you give them food, shelter, etc? Do you try to help them out of poverty? Who do you choose and why? Does it matter as long as you are helping? The first thing you have to as is, can I help this person? What if you do all you can do to help and the situation remains unchanged, when do you give up?

      The problem may be too big from one person, so a concerned person needs to be compelled enough to enlist the help of other concerned people to address it.

      The greatest amount of empathy with the largest pool of forgiveness likely exists between a parent and their children. As kids become adults and take more and more responsibility for their actions, a parent’s role retreats. There is a point with parents of adults who are constantly irresponsible, self-destructive, or mentally damaged (ranging from depression to schizophrenia, etc) where even a parent’s seemingly endless pool of empathy will dry up over time. For some parent’s the pool of empathy has an endless depth, for others its finite. As individuals and as societies we have to determine where we draw the line. These are murky questions and the line is always moving. There are many situations for which the answer “right” and “wrong” are not available; only “better” or “worse”. Picking the better path is not always clear, and many times it requires multiple approaches – variations on carrots and sticks.

      The source of the suffering matters. The “fairness” of the circumstances matters. Is the suffering caused by an act of God, another person, genetics, the person themselves? The fairness/reciprocity pillar of ethics/morality requires reciprocity for justice to be done.
      “Justice is giving someone what they deserve” – Aristotle

      The more you can make an issue of suffering about an individual, the more people will likely respond empathetically. The more its about a group that is “other” from them, the more likely they are to ignore the problem. This has to due with our genetic moral frameworks.

      Your question is difficult one and one that requires specific examples for a definitive ethical answer. And the truth is, each circumstance may have a different ethical approach but that does not mean their isn’t an ethically valid answer for each circumstance.

      If you can help mitigate or dissolve another’s suffering, it is likely better to try than to do nothing or worse, exacerbate the problem. As a society, when prioritizing resources we should look to the ethical spheres of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity in appropriating our resources.

      Good questions, no easy answers.

    • Reciprocity is ‘to act in-kind’. In the case of a harmful act, it’s “an eye for an eye”. Fairness assumes that a harmful act be ‘returned’ onto the perpetrator to ‘set the scale right’.

      In the case of a kind act, one ought to return the kindness in-kind; reciprocally.

Leave a Reply