Ethics, as a field of study, is sort of like a tree with 10,000 branches—branches that may disagree with each other. With such variances, then, how do we begin to understand ethics?
One way to really think about ethics is through its historical meaning, which has to do with a person’s ethos. This is the idea that ethics is connected with character, and it is sort of a high standard approach to what it means to act in a particularly cogent and courageous way, as well as to demonstrate personal integrity. And then there is a more important conceptual distinction a person could make, particularly between ethics and morals. This is needed because when defining ethics, many will use the word “morals” interchangeably, which confuses the issue.
There is, however, some disagreement among scholars as to the difference between morals and ethics. One school of thought asserts that morality is inherently founded on spiritual principles--one’s responsibility to a supernatural being or goal. Ethics, others argue, relies on materialist and social consequences, not spiritual ones, in order to determine what is ethical or not. Other schools of thought may hold that this line between morals and ethics is arbitrary. They believe ethics is simply a formal branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the study of morals and their justification; this group would assert that ethics is the philosophy of morals.
We posit that ethics is not the same thing as morality. Consider, for example, how arbitrary moral stances tend to be, especially when they are outside of one’s own culture or religious beliefs. What may seem justifiable in one culture can easily be problematic in another. In addition, being ethical is not simply following a law or rules that have been established. In fact, some of our most revered historical/modern figures not only disagreed with laws or rules they deemed to be unethical, but also fought against them—and in some cases, it cost them their lives.
Ethics, rather, emphasizes the responsibility and capability of the individual to come to his/her own conclusions through reasoning, and to determine which principles are relevant in a particular case. They are well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics is the reasonable obligation for us to refrain from hurting others, and sometimes the obligation to help others.
Living ethically also requires the continuous effort of studying our own beliefs and conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and evidence-based. It is knowing that before we can do the right thing, we have to figure out what the right thing is.
As you begin introducing students to ethics, you might start by asking them to consider:
“What kind of person is good?”
“What kind of person should I be?” and
“How should a good person behave in this situation?”
Our goal is to build student capacity for ethical reasoning—so they not only know what ought to be done, but also understand why.