Understanding Ethics

We derive ethical truth with the same method we use to derive truth about anything; we ask good questions.  If we look at the scientific method, it requires a hypothesis, a question or statement that is testable.  To prove the validity of any statement of truth, it must be testable and verifiable by others.

Because Ethics is a conceptual thing (it is Knowledge), it exists in our minds and is manifested via emotional responses to external stimulus; it requires introspection to gain understanding.  Introspection quires asking the right questions to derive honest answers.

To derive an ethical truth, there is no limit to the number of questions one can ask.  While many questions can and should be asked when weighing an ethical problem, there is one fundamental question of Ethics that should always be asked; its the Golden Rule.  Phrased as a statement, “Do onto others as you would have them do to you.”  Phrased as a question, “How would I like it if someone did that to me?”

This question should be applied to all ethical matters.  Typically our emotive responses are in response to issues of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.  One’s emotional intelligence (EQ) in the form of empathic response, and intellectual intelligence (IQ) in the form of asking good questions, are what is required for ethical understanding.


As noted, the ability to understand that another entity can feel the same way as you (empathy), is the baseline requirements for an understanding of of ethics. Understanding ethics therefore requires introspection. To “know thy self” is to have an understanding of ethics.

Human beings, along with some other animals, are born with the knowledge of ethics. Humans beings, along with a very small set of animals, are born with a basic understanding of ethics (possessing the ability for empathy). The difference in empathetic response between humans and their closest social animal groups is so large as to make a comparison almost insignificant, still some social animals do seem to have an empathetic response to members of their social groups (praire dogs, elephants, etc) and sometimes outside of their own species (think of your family dog).

Why do all animals and most humans not adhere to universal ethical standards? The simple answer is both nature and culture. With animals, nature is a simple enough explanation. It can broadly be claimed that living creatures on earth, with the exception of humans, lack the basic level of understanding of ethics to hold them to any ethical standards. Although if you think about it, we hold domesticated animals to some ethicals standards. If a dog or some other domesticated animal attacks a human, capital punishment typically follows for the animal. So I guess we do make some assumptions regarding animals’ understanding of ethics.

We humans have an element of nature working against us, but it is arguably more in our nature to be ethical, else we would live like animals. We have developed cultures that reflect our collective understanding of ethics. Culture provides a means of social group adhesion; they provide systems of justice, means of distributing wealth, taking care of health, etc.

Cultures need to address fundamental elements of ethics (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). The tools they have used to create social adhesion incorporate all five elements of morality: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, In-group/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.

Ethical acts do not occur in a vacuum, they require two entities to be in contact. While an individual can comprehend an ethical injustice, groups of individuals in the form of a culture are typically required to agree with the aggrieved individual and lobby on their behalf to right an injustice. Therefore Ethics is individually knowable and understandable, but cultures are required to provide ethical consistency and social order.

Ethics was defined as knowledge and understanding of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. Individual knowledge and understanding of any concept is a function of IQ and EQ. Cultural understanding requires many individuals to agree on general conditions. So getting a culture to get ethics right most of the time is hard. Most cultures have not figured out how to get ethics right all of the time. Cultural knowledge and understanding varies, just like individual knowledge and understanding varies. The best explanation for consistently bad behavior is cultural influence, referenced to by Simon Blackburn in “Being Good” as Ethical Climates.

Ethics within a given social system is typically enforce by the social structure.  A group that can not agree on what is the best thing to do, can often agree on what is better.  This provides consensus: agreement in practice but not principle.  This is mainly why moving a society in a more ethical path takes time, but most highly functioning societies tend to move in positive ethical directions.  Conversely, adherence to ethical standards tends to fade away in failed states, where individuals fear “others” and respect for “others” is virtually nonexistent

While personal and group (cultural) understanding of ethics may waver or change over time, Ethics as a knowable and defendable concept never varies.  Ethical truth can be derived for any situation at any time.  An individuals or groups ability to derive ethical truth can be impaired for several reason.  We will explore this more in future posts under “What Ethics Isn’t” and “Diving into the Gray”.

Simply put, the culture we grow up in “informs” us about our world. You can learn to be more or less ethical via your sources of knowledge and understanding (parents, schools, religion, peer group, media, etc.). We can broadly classify our external influences as culture.

As noted in Morals VS Ethics and Moral and Ethical Sphere culture and morality are closely linked. The divergent source of ethical understanding and moral understanding require further explanation.

Could it be moralistic thinking is a source of unethical behavior? Good question. Good place to stop this post.


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