Ethics is all about the choices we make. We constantly face choices that affect the quality of our lives. We are aware that the choices that we make have consequences, both for ourselves and others. We are aware of the responsibility we have for our actions.
Ethics is about character -- the sum of qualities that defines a person. These qualities include a person’s intellect, thoughts, ideas, motives, intentions, temperament, judgment, behaviour, imagination, perception, emotions, loves, and hates. In virtue ethics, character is all about what a well-intentioned person with good character would do. Character counts, as the saying goes, and it is the sum of who we are. What we stand for.
We need to be ethical because it defines who we are individually and as a society. These are norms of behaviour that everyone should follow. Our society might fall into chaos if we accept that each of us could pick and choose what the right thing to do is. Some people may lie; others may not do what they say they will do; still others act irresponsibly and engage in harmful behaviour.
There is nothing wrong with pursuing one’s own interests. However, an ethical person must be willing – at least sometimes – to place the interests of others ahead of self-interest, because of our responsibility to a civil society.
When most people think of ethics (or morals), they think of rules for distinguishing between right and wrong, such as the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), a code of professional conduct like the Hippocratic Oath ("First of all, do no harm"), a religious creed like the Ten Commandments ("Thou Shalt not kill..."), or a wise aphorisms like the sayings of Confucius. This is the most common way of defining "ethics": norms for conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
“ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong. Put another way, ethics is a more individual assessment of values as relatively good or bad, while morality is a more intersubjective community assessment of what is good, right or just for all.
Put simply, Morals have a broader approach wherein others (except the actors) who might experience indirect effects of the actions taken.
In ethical dilemmas, individual decision-making may draw on the frameworks of “must-do” imperatives, utility consequences, the seeking of goodness, or a guiding framework from God.
But ethical decisions should recognise the context within which they are set. That is, they must recognise that duties can be ranked in a hierarchy (for example, to stop at an accident to render assistance trumps the promise of meeting for coffee); in a similar way, consequences can be ranked too.
In moral decisions, in which the importance of others and their actual situation in the world, is recognised, community decisions are based on dialogue between all those on whom the decision impacts. That dialogue should aim to be inclusive, non-coercive, self-reflective, and seek consensus among real people, rather than seek an elusive absolute moral truth.
But it is still a debate whether certain dilemmas are seen as ethical or moral ones. Just consider euthanasia, homosexuality, suicide, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to name a few.
As a simple example, consider the decision of which career I choose.
• First I collect the facts (such as the pre-requisites I need in order to enrol in a course). Collecting the facts precedes any ethical or moral decision-making.
• The ethical dimension of the decision leads me to think about myself and recognise, say, that I have certain talents, or that I would like to maximise my work-life balance.
• The moral dimension is added when I recognise my decision affects others – my family, the community in which I live – in terms of being able to serve others, rather than simply earn an income. Thus, I widen my own perspective and discuss with those around me how we should decide.
In the recent years, formal frameworks have been developed to help people resolve ethical/moral dilemmas. The purpose of such a framework is in identifying the issues and deciding on an appropriate course of action using the person’s values.
The six-step approach that follows is intended to be a relatively simple approach to resolving dilemmas:
Step 1: Obtain relevant facts about the situation. Incomplete information can be more dangerous than no information.
Step 2: Separate the ethical issues from the facts. keep your mind and heart separated for now.
Step 3: Determine who is affected by the outcome of each dilemma and how they are affected.
Step 4: Identify the alternatives available for the person resolving the dilemma
Step 5: Having identified the alternatives, identify the consequences of each alternative.
Step 6: Decide on the appropriate action, after having all the possible info at hand.
“Courage is a decision you make to act in a way that works through your own fear for the greater good as opposed to pure self-interest. Courage means putting at risk your immediate self-interest for what you believe is right.”