Real life ethical decisions are studied in sociologyand political scienceand psychologyusing very different methods than descriptive ethicsin ethics (philosophy).
- 1 Not ethics proper
- 2 "ethics and morals"
- 3 European traditions
- 4 Pre-requisites to an ethical decision
- 4.1 Trust relationships
- 4.2 Consistent description
- 4.3 De-escalating
- 4.4 Avoiding right vs. wrong
- 4.5 Right versus right
- 4.6 An environment or context
- 5 Ethics outside, morality inside?
- 5.1 Syndromes and simplicity
- 5.2 Roles from families
- 5.3 Castes
- 5.4 Parties
- 5.5 What's universal ?
- 5.5.1 Sharable social judgements
- 5.5.2 Seeking safety
- 5.5.3 Right to thrive
- 5.5.4 Complexity adds doubt
- 5.5.5 Smaller is simpler
- 5.6 Why we need politics
- 5.7 Why we need tribes and villages
Not ethics proper
One way to differentiate a practical ethical decision is to say that it is based on knowledgeas popularly conceived and not on any rigorous epistemology. Since the process by which the decision is made does not involve any rigorous argument, but rather some way to defer to a more local authority on some more limited matter, it is more political, and less philosophical, in tone:
"ethics and morals"
There are many views of ethics and morals, and most people who use that phrase mean something quite different from what is meant by philosophers. Many people who use this phrase are hostile to academic ethics and the arguments used by academic ethicists. They seek to make an ethical decision but without justifying it in the ways that would be demanded by academic ethics. Accordingly it is wrong to simply "redirect" the popular phrase "ethics and morals" to academic ethics, its users may:
- be applying an instinctive idea of goodness and value theorythey learned in their family or which they think mirrors an ethical relationshipof theirs
- simply believe some socially transmitted truth.
- simply be using the phrase to cut off debate, as if to say there is some way to achieve direct knowledgeof what decision "is ethical"
- simply believe that a certain decision is right or true because of a moral codeor legal code- see section regarding 'What's universal?' below.
Those with no background, or no interest, in academic moral philosophy, or any ethical traditionor religionin general, use the phrase ethics and morals in a somewhat naive way, implying that ethics and morals are the same. Within one ethical tradition, they may well be:
The European tradition of "ethics" is usually also called the scienceof morality. It grew from Christianand previous Jewishmoral codessuch as the Ten Commandmentsand other more universal codes such as the Golden Rule. There is a separate article on that.
Pre-requisites to an ethical decision
Other traditions, such as Confucianism, animism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, had a similar impact on their cultures and all tend to emphasize different aspects of decisions than does Western academic ethics, which is said to suffer badly from a "God's Eye view" problem. By constrast other traditions have emphasized:
Trust relationships are the foundations of all ethical decisions. One must learn what is good and ethical from some role modelor moral example. Religionoften raises certain stories about certain people to this level deliberately.
All ethical and moral judgement attempts to make consistent descriptions of complex situations and difficult decisions. It is considered to be important because, to those who practice the ethical traditionin which the descriptions are applied, it answers the big question: "How should we live?"
The very questions presupposes that we can define 'how' (method), 'should' (ambition), 'we' (a group seeking consensus), 'live' (beings with bodies).
Without this context, ethics is generally just talk implying moral judgement - called normative ethics, and covered again in separate article.
The remainder of this article is about practical approaches to ethical decisions that are observed in ordinary people's daily lives and in politicsin particular:
An ethical decision is often thought of as the one that reduces future conflict. In sociologyand political science, practical and applied ethicsitself is often defined as a process of de-escalating moral conflicts to the point of:
- reducing harm, and
- educatingas required so that each participant in a conflict can effectively see the other's point of view
At this point the conflict is unlikely to recur
Avoiding right vs. wrong
Without this, we fall back to the simplistic view, which is "I am right and you are wrong and you do what I say." (This is usually called moral absolutism). This kind of assertion, backed by force, is the basis of much authority and it leads to violence very often. So much so that it turns out not to be the simplest way to live among humans in the long run, even if it is accepted by small groups (say a whole family) in the short run.
Right versus right
A simple, practical view, as advanced by Rushworth Kidder, is that ethics balances "right versus right": if there's a dispute we care to hear, then each side must have some right on it. However, this presupposes some instinctive moral core of the individual that must recognize right and wrong, else we do not have two individuals asserting "right" and requiring ethical help: if either in fact secretly believes themselves "wrong" then they are engaging in tactics to reduce the chance of getting caught or alerting others to it, neither of which is studied by ethics.
An environment or context
Ethics can thus be viewed as a lever but one that rests on a moral fulcrum of pre-existing assumptions, like the bodies of the beings in conflict, placed there by circumstances, environments, situations, mostly out of their control - only the choice of resolution is under their own control. When the environment or context has some status in the decision, as in ecological ethics, there is said to be a situated ethics.
This is not the same as situational ethicswhich is about single decisions unlikely to recur.
Ethics outside, morality inside?
An ethical decision making view, as above, requires everyone involved to see ethics as a process outside the body, and morality as something instinctive and within.
Such a view completely reverses the classical Greek view that ethos, or "character" was internal, and mores, or "custom", came from the society. But then, the ancient Greeks viewed religion and the responsibilties of a tutor in a different way that most moderns do. The classical Greek view leads, in the view of some more modern Christianphilosophers such as Margaret Visser, to fatalismand revenge, and to retributive justicein the law. Those who find these measures desirable thus have an alternative simple view.
Syndromes and simplicity
Castes or groups in society may have their own moral syndromesthat simplify the types of decisions they make, e.g. as professionals in a commercial or governmental field. Jane Jacobsclaims there are two irreconcilable moral syndromes that arise from those contrasting views:
- Guardian Syndrome
- Trader Syndrome
Paul Adlerdefined markets, hierarchies, and communities as three different ways to resolve and make an ethical decision. While Jacobs denied that collusion or collaboration between the syndromes could be constructive, and called any confusion of the two a "monstrous moral hybrid", Adler thought that "Communities" could do this without corruption. By Jacobs' definition the community itself might be a source of corruption.
Roles from families
George Lakoff's theory of moral politics states that these arise from family roledifferences ultimately, with a moral codeemphasizing the logosor "rule" of the father as being the source of the motivations of the political "right", and one emphasizing the more merciful moderns or mother-like view as being moral source for the "left".
One solution is castes: people are raised to make decisions in particular ways based on their family traditions which are drawn from professional traditions. Then people take on the profession for which they are best prepared. This addresses the problem raised above, that the simplest ways to make 'ethical decisions tend to conflict. But of course then the choice of profession is not up to the person but the family or the society around them.
Without such a system, differences may evolve into some full system of community consensus or politics:
Politics, as Bernard Crickput it, is "ethics carried out in public". His list of political virtuesis an attempt to frame politics as a form of ethics, and ethics as a form of conflict resolution.
A political partyfor instance in democracyhelps those who see ethical decisions the same way, form groups to promote those criteria for decisions that they see as most important.
What's universal ?
The idea that moral principles are universal continues to persist, and most people probably believe that there is ethics independent of any politics:
A constitutionis an attempt to define some universal principles into a social contractas a basis for unityin legal and military matters - at least to determine what people agree not to fight.
Despite wide differences in the ways that people live, there are a few widely-accepted moral principles that cross most cultural boundaries.
Sharable social judgements
Ethics begins when we try to use "right", "wrong", "good", "bad" and "evil" as labels in a sharable, predictable, way. Else it is just a moral judgement and not a basis for cooperation with other people in any due process or law.
Most surviving societies recognize certain acts that are usually bad for the society, such as lying, stealing, murder of people, adultery, and impiety (to God or Nature which in early societies was often the same). Mature societies recognize ecological and personal obligations that may contradict the social:
Therefore, etiquette (or "diplomacy" or "de-escalation") often requires that a painful truth be avoided, or even that a disruptive presence be silenced... many otherwise "civilized" societies jail, exile, or even execute individuals. See social contract.
This highlights the differences between individual and social responsibility - very often people rely on society or labor specialization to do things (like kill chickens or "terrorists") that they simply would not do for themselves. Whether such delegation of violenceis desirable, and systems to do so, is studied in civics.
Sociologists and anthropologists believe that there is a tendency in most societies to support:
- belief and safety over doubt and risk,
- fairness, consentand dutyover dissent,
- knowledgeinstead of ignorance,
- trustand honestyover lying
- to be against what the culture considers evil.
It is actually not possible to use any of those words without moral judgements - possibly judgements inherited from the dictionary - this is studied in meta-ethicsand in descriptive ethicsalso.
Since all surviving societies must protect helpless people like elders, children, and pregnant women, it is likely that these concepts are defined more with reference to those helpless people than to others - that is, those with power have a duty to protect the helpless.
Right to thrive
One nearly-universal moral principle is some form of the golden rule: "Act towards other people as you would want others to act towards you." Another principle is that a person can only be blamed or praised if they could choose to act or refuse to act. Another is that there seems to be something good about helping living things in general, or compassionor empathy.
It is useful to distinguish "good from bad" in our actions just as we might distinguish "good from evil" morally in our thoughts. It's also useful to recognize that we use the word "right" to assert what we are due and to judge what is correct. To anything that's alive, it's "right" for it to live, that too is built into the body. If a creature is physically fit and capable of thriving in its environment, it takes a lot to overcome a preference to live:
Complexity adds doubt
As ethical theories become more specific, they can become more controvertial. Unlike many other kinds of theories, they can be wrong simply because they cannot be applied fairly in practice! Very often, they are an excuse for continuing behavior felt to be immoral - whether behavior can ever be "known" to be immoral is another basic question.
Even the above version of the golden rule can be doubted, i.e. what if the "person" is not human, or has deliberately killed a human? Is it right to treat such a person like a human if they would be harmed by reciprocal treatment? What makes us decide that a person is worthy of respect in the first place? A body? Ape-like gestures? A corporate charter?
Philosophers have been criticizing ethical theories for thousands of years, and many of their criticisms are complex, subtle and technical. Discussing such criticisms is beyond the scope of this article. Usually, ethics does not stand alone but alongside, and most often in relation to epistemology(the study of the nature of knowledge and how is it obtained) and metaphysics(the study of the fundamental nature of reality and the universe) to constitute "a philosophy".
Theologians often phrase the questions somewhat differently, in terms of cosmology(God in the universe), ontology(what exists), and morals. As morals are difficult or impossible to transfer out of context, the theologian generally studies ethics case by case - or "fable by fable".
Smaller is simpler
All of this introduces complexity that no practical dispute solver needs, to resolve any given dispute:
So consider again a "simplistic view" (I'm right you're wrong) - or moral absolutism- and two "simple views" (ethos as character, moresas rules VERSUS morals as aesthetics, ethics as dispute resolution). If you accept that the simple views (but not the simplistic view) can co-exist and both be right that is moral relativism.
Why we need politics
If you take the more "practical view" that we can't avoid politics(moderated but potentially violent conflict) between simple, simplistic, and more complex views, then you are neither an absolutist nor a relativist, and believe in some kind of moral cognition. That is, some shared way to determine what is right and what is wrong in a situation, and to agree on an ethical decision with some method of public debating:
You can often agree on what this is with a small group, and get something done, and live in harmony.
Why we need tribes and villages
The ideal size of a corporation has been stated as 70 people, and an ideal village no more than 120-150. At this scale, the simple view can be applied directly, and one need do no more than assess what moral concepts mean to the group. In other words, assess morality very informally and apply only informal sanctions or punishments with little or no need for force.
As groups and societies get larger, technology advances, and violence more likely, that shared moral cognition gets harder to manage. Some rigorous epistemologyagreements like a moral codeor standard of evidencemust be applied. These, and politicalstandards like an electoral process, increase the potential for agreement and decrease the potential for violence, at the cost of added complexity and requirement to place trust in some referees (like judges or constitutional monarchs or a church or GodKing). At some point this becomes indistinguishable from the simplistic trust in authority, and, probably, the cycle of agreeing must begin all over again, in smaller units of trust.
See also: list of ethics topics, business ethics, ethical code
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical+decision Wikipedia article Ethical decision.