Ethics: A Look at the Basics
- What Are “Ethics”?
- Revisiting the Basics
- Morals, Values, and Ethics
- Ethical Subdivisions
- Normative Ethics
- Virtue Ethics
- Descriptive Ethics
- Differentiating Ethics and Morals from Law
- What Ethics Involves
- Accountability, Integrity, Responsibility
- Causal and Moral Responsibility
Theodore Roosevelt said that “to educate a man in mind, but not in morals is to create a menace to society.” It is for precisely this reason that the topic of ethics is discussed within this text as a vital component of public service.
Public servants must not only do technical things correctly, but they also must do ethically correct things. Everyone encounters ethical dilemmas; the question is when and whether they are ready for them?
If we are to consider how ethics play a part in public service, first we must analyze the meaning of the term. The term ethics means the study of moral standards and how they affect conduct. The Greek root for ethics is ethos, which emphasizes the perfection of the individual and the community in which he or she is defined.
There are some experts who debate whether or not ethics should or can be taught to adults.
Arguments are centered around two opposing sides: (1) that by the time one has reached adulthood, understanding of values and ethics are fixed, (2) while others believe that lifelong education can influence and modify behavior, and thus ethics should be taught.
Nearly all people acknowledge the importance of ethics. However, unfortunately few really understand ethics as well as they think they do or as well as they should. Ethics can be meaningfully discussed and applied only when it is fully understood.
This understanding requires a periodic revisiting of the basics. So, what then is ethics about?
Ethics is about right and wrong.
John Stuart Mill addressed this within his work Utilitarianism (1859) when he said, “We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience.”
Ethics is about virtue and vice. “Vice, the opposite of virtue, shows us more clearly what virtue is. Justice becomes more obvious when we have injustice to compare it to”
Ethics is about benefit and harm. “The two essential ingredients in the sentiment of justice are the desire to punish a person who has done harm, and the knowledge or belief that there is some definite individual or individuals to whom harm has been done” (John Stuart Mill, 1859).
While ethics encompasses all of the above, it is more simply about “fixed, universal rules of right conduct that are contingent on neither time nor culture nor circumstance”. And yet, it is also about character, “the traits, qualities, and established reputation that define who one is and what one stands for in the eyes of others”. Lastly, it is about example, “an established pattern of conduct worthy of emulation”
In breaking down the often-used interchangeably words of morals and ethics, it is most easily summarized by Charles Colson, “Morality describes what is. Ethics describes what ought to be”. The word morality originates from the Latin word moralis, which means “traditional customs or proper behavior.” Fundamentally, morals refer to a set of rules defining what is considered to be right or wrong and accepted without question by a group, society, or individual.
These rules are typically defined by society, which can include peers, educators, religion, media, and the family unit. If someone breaks such a rule, then they are typically considered to have been “bad” or “immoral.” Values, on the other hand, provide direction in the determination of right versus wrong or good versus bad. Values are what an individual believes to have worth and importance, or to be valuable. As such, morals are values that an individual attributes to a system of beliefs that assist the individual in defining right from wrong or good from bad.
Ethics involves attempting to address questions as to how a moral outcome can be achieved. This is sometimes referred to as “applied ethics.” For descriptive, and meta-ethics.
The field of normative ethics is concerned with investigating the questions that arise when one asks, “How should one act, ethically speaking?” It seeks to examine the standards for the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions. Sociologically speaking, normative is derived from the term norm. As such, norms are concerned with those attributes of a culture that compose the largely unspoken, yet almost universally shared expectations as to what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behavior. Norms are pointed to as defining the boundaries of what is considered conformity and what is considered deviance within a society. They are expectations not behaviors.
This theoretical approach to ethics was first advocated by Aristotle. Its focus was on the inherent character of an individual rather than on specific actions performed by them. In recent times, there has been a significant resurgence of virtue ethics. The work of such philosophers as Alasdair Macintyre, Rosalind Hursthouse, Philippa Foot, and G. E. M. Anscombe are based upon virtue ethics.
Those subscribing to deontological theories argue that ethical decisions should be made through the consideration of one’s duties and obligations along with other individual’s rights.
Contractarianism: Foundation surrounds the concept that moral acts are those which all individuals would agree with if they were to be unbiased. The works of John Rawls and Thomas Hobbes etc deal with this.
Natural rights theory: Foundation is that human beings have absolute, natural rights. The works of Thomas Aquinas and John Locke are based upon this.
Categorical Imperative: Foundation is that morality is rooted in the capacity of individuals to be rational, and it also asserts that there are certain inviolable moral laws within society. The works of Immanuel Kant pertains to this theory.
These theories argue that the morality associated with an action is related to the outcome or result of the action. They differ by the value associated with the action or decision.
Utilitarianism: Best action/decision is one that results in the most happiness for the greatest number of individuals.
Egoism: Best action/decision is one that maximizes good for oneself.
Hedonism: Best action/decision is one that will maximize pleasure.
Intellectualism: Best action/decision is one that best promotes knowledge.
Consequentialist Libertarianism: Liberty should be maximized.
Welfarism: Best action/decision is one that best increases economic well-being.
Situation Ethics: Best action/decision is one that results in the most love.
Sometimes referred to as comparative ethics, descriptive ethics involves the study of an individual’s beliefs relating to morality. The goal of descriptive ethics is to attempt to define individual beliefs relating to values and what actions are deemed right and wrong. It may also include researching what actions society condemns or punishes with regards to law and/or politics. It is important that the reader recognize that the attempt is to describe morality and not customs, etiquette, or laws of a group of people or society.
This area is largely empirical as to research and, thus, typically involves the areas of biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology, but also may carry over to the area of philosophy at times
Meta-ethics refer to the fundamental nature of ethics, including whether or not such ethics have an objective justification. More specifically, it refers to how individuals determine for themselves what societal norms to follow. For instance, “What does it mean to be ‘right’”?
Therefore, if someone is to question a rule, he/she becomes engaged in an ethical discussion or argument because ethics is concerned with the justification for a rule or set of rules. Morals are a property of a society or an individual, while society or individuals can argue about ethics. This is a more flexible and adaptable field of ethics with less foundation to draw from and more “gut driven.”
DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN ETHICS AND MORALS
Consider a defense attorney: A lawyer may find murder immoral, according to their personal moral code; however, ethics require that lawyers defend their accused client to the best of their ability, even knowing their client is most likely guilty and that his/her acquittal or release could potentially result in additional crime. If lawyers begin to question their ability to adhere to these ethical principles, then they must remove themselves from the practice or risk damaging the ethics of their profession. This is a fundamental concept within our public service system, that ethics must trump personal morals for the greater good of maintaining the integrity of a system.
Moral and ethics should be distinguished from law as well. Simply because something is legally permissible does not mean that it is morally and ethically permissible. This is the fundamental argument around the debates surrounding abortion, medical marijuana, child labor, and many others. And, just as legality does not suggest morality, illegality does not imply immorality.
As stated by Gregory D. Foster in the Humanist, “there is more to ethics than simply knowing what it is about”. It is just as important to know what is involved in its makeup. Ethics is the way values are practiced. As such, it is both a process of inquiry (deciding how to decide) and a code of conduct (a set of standards governing behavior).
“To think well is to think critically. Critical thinking, the conscious use of reason, stands clearly apart from other ways of grasping truth or confronting choice: impulse, habit, etc.
Impulse is nothing more than an unreflective spontaneity, a mind on autopilot. Habit on the other hand is programmed repetition”. Similar to muscle memory, as applies to behavior, it is repetitive and habitual.
Therefore, “the object of critical thinking is to achieve a measure of objectivity to counteract or diminish the subjective bias that experience and socialization bestow on us all”.
This is imperative because “when we are dealing with matters of ethical concern, the well-being of someone or something beyond ourselves is always at stake”.
Ethics begins with the individual. While simplistic in nature, it is this issue that also is the starting point for the complications and travesties relating to ethics in public service, the fact that it all begins with an individual.
An agency or organization cannot have ethics; it is its employees who have ethics. It is the administration that makes ethical decisions. The upside is that the majority of people desire to be ethical, most organizations desire to act ethically, and the majority of employees and organizations desire to be treated ethically.
The downside to this is that a great many individuals and organizations simply are not proficient at the application of shared values to the process of decision making. “The glory of the human story is that the capacity for good news makes ethics possible; the tragedy is that the propensity for evil makes ethics necessary”.
If we are to look at the simplicity and difficulty relating to the topic of ethics in public service, we must first differentiate between personal and political ethics.
First, the purpose of personal ethics is to make individuals morally better, or rather to ensure that the relationships between individuals are morally tolerable. Political ethics, on the other hand, while also serving to guide the actions of individuals, it does so only with respect to their institutional roles and only to the degree necessary for the greater good of the institution or society.
Although there may be two different areas of ethics, they have as their foundation a commonality. That is that, regardless of either private or political (public) ethics, there is the common theme of a desire and expectation for respecting other’s rights, fulfillment of obligations, fair treatment, and truthful words and actions.Ethical decision making and implementation requires an individual to have both critical thinking and communication skills.
This would seem simplistic enough, but it is in passing along the decisions that the waters are muddied and the message blurred. It requires that the decision maker have a fundamental knowledge of leadership and of the leader– follower relationship.
In public service, there is hierarchy that relates to the various levels of ethics, each having its own set of responsibilities and own possibilities for complexities. At the first step is personal morality, or an individual’s concept of right and wrong.This is formed as a basis of upbringing and environment.
Second is professional ethics. These are typically codified within an organization or professional association relating to the organization or position. The third level is organizational. These can include written policies and procedures that dictate organizational expectations relating to ethical decision making and behavior.
Lastly, there are social ethics. These are typically enacted as societal laws and also can be part of an individual’s personal social conscience (Shafritz, Russell, and Borick, 2007).
Accountability refers to public service professionals being liable or answerable to someone. It is a measure of their demonstration in fulfilling their promises. It is an external test.
Integrity is the adherence to moral and ethical principles and integration of moral virtues into one’s decisions and actions. It is an internal test.
Responsibility is the act of being reliable or dependable, or the burden of accountability for having done something.
In discussing the aforementioned, we must distinguish between what is referred to as causal responsibility from moral responsibility.
A blind individual who knocks something over while attempting to negotiate his/her way through a congested shopping mall that is not adhering to compliancy for those who are handicapped, is causally responsible for the damage that occurred, but he/ she is not morally responsible.
The individual had no way of controlling or foreseeing his/her actions, therefore he/she deserves no moral blame for his/ her actions. However, if a non-handicapped person were to traverse the same location and decide to knock something over, causing it to break, then he/she would be both causally and morally responsible for the damage.
Therefore, there are four basic conditions that must be present in order to decide moral responsibility:
1. The individual must be aware of the facts pertaining to the situation or decision.
2. The individual must be cognizant of the difference between right and wrong.
3. The individual must have had intent to have done what he/she did.
4. The individual must have been able to do otherwise than what he/ she did.
Infants and those with severe mental or physical impairments fail to meet the conditions set forth to determine moral responsibility and, therefore, require no excuse for their acts. However, those who are capable have no excuses beyond there being no other alternative to the actions taken, which would thus result in the conditions not being met. If there is no excuse, then the only acceptable action is to take responsibility for one’s actions. This is the basis for integrity and virtue.
Aristotle believed that virtue was “the ability habitually to know the good and to do the good”. This definition aids in reminding us that no person is morally good simply based on a single act or moment.
Rather, “morality is a matter of character, and character is a matter of habit. The more one is in the habit of knowing and doing the good, the more one is virtuous”.
Anyone who has ever used a firearm knows that hitting the bull’s eye 100% of the time is not a realistic expectation. However, proper training, muscle memory, repetition, and development of positive habits certainly assist in improving the accuracy with which one shoots. However, just as a great marksman will on a rare occasion miss his mark, a poor marksman will sometimes hit the target.
This is not as a result of habit, but is similar to the adage that “even a broken clock is correct twice a day.” This anomaly does not make the poor marksman suddenly good, just as it does not make the excellent marksman suddenly bad when he is to finally miss his mark.
As such, a random good deed or act does not result in a virtuous person, just as a scathing or misguided deed does not make a virtuous individual suddenly without virtue. Virtue, as with marksmanship, is about habit. It is about developing good muscle memory. Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
Although this is an adage because perfection is an actual impossibility … and really, what would “ethical perfection” be?
Guilt and fear play a vital role in ethical development and adherence.
There are many who maintain their actions within accepted ethical norms simply due to the fear associated with being caught if they were to stray from normal. Some will violate any ethical norm and do whatever they feel they can get away with without being caught.
Others are much too paranoid to stray from norms and regulate their actions based on fear.
On the other hand, guilt is sometimes the motivator under which honest people operate. Decisions about whether or not to comply with ethical norms is not founded upon the fear of being caught, but rather on the knowledge that they will know that they did something that they believe to be wrong.
Perhaps those who discover guilt as children decide to be good and honest people simply because they do not want to feel the burden of guilt.
As a person matures into adulthood, this honesty and goodness becomes a habit, and guilt is a continual burden to bear for straying from “good.”
Sociopaths, on the other hand, do not have the capacity to feel guilt because they do not believe their actions to be wrong.
As is readily apparent, there are as many ethical definitions as there are people, or subsets of people. However, as pertains to the study of ethics, these ethical perspectives can be roughly grouped so as to allow the reader to gain some insight into ethical decision making.
As with all areas of ethics, the reader is wise to view such information and discussions as “framework” and “guidelines” rather than foundational or as strict rules to be adhered to.