Ethics: What is Ethics?

If you type on google “what is Ethics”, then you’ll find numerous definitions from different websites. Few of them are:

  • Ethics is a set of guiding principles of rightness and wrongness of a deliberate human action.
  • It is a systematic study of human actions from the point of view of rightfulness and wrongfulness, as means for attainment of the ultimate happiness.
  • It is a set of standards that a society places on itself and which helps guide behaviour, choices and actions.

By combining all these definitions, one can arrive at a comprehensive definition:

‘Ethics is a set of guiding principles that a society places on itself which helps decide the rightfulness and wrongfulness of a deliberate human action.’

Looking at this definition raises multiple questions:

  • What is a human action?
  • Does these guidelines are universal?
  • Is there any theory which say what is right and what is wrong? and many more…

We’ll deal with these questions in our subsequent topics. For now lets look into the few basic topics related to Ethics.

 

Background:

  • Ethics is a branch of philosophy. As a philosophical discipline, ethics is the study of the values and guidelines by which we live. It also involves justification of these values and guidelines.
  • The term Ethics is derived from the greek work ethos which means custom, habit, character and disposition.
  • Ethics influence the way people make decisions which impact their lives.
  • Different professions have different ethics, like:
    • Corporate ethics
    • Managerial ethics
    • Journalistic ethics
    • Ethics for medical practitioners
    • Administrative ethics

 

What Ethics is not?

Some years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, “What does ethics mean to you?” Among their replies were the following:

“Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong.”
“Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs.”
“Being ethical is doing what the law requires.”
“Ethics consists of the standards of behaviour our society accepts.”
“I don’t know what the word means.”

Clearly, in order to understand what Ethics is more thoroughly, we need to know what ethics is not.

  • Ethics are not same as feelings: Like Baumhart’s first respondent, many people tend to equate ethics with their feelings. But being ethical is clearly not a matter of following one’s feelings. A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing what is right. In fact, feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical.
    • Eg: A person with high ethical standards feels bad when he accepts bribe, where as, a corrupt persons feels right/happy to take a bribe.
  • Ethics not necessarily follow culturally accepted norms: Some cultures are quite ethical, but others become corrupt or blind to certain ethical concerns.
    • Eg: Caste System in India
  • Ethics do not refer to any religion: Most religions, of course, advocate high ethical standards. Yet if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics applies as much to the behaviour of the atheist as to that of the devout religious person. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behaviour. Ethics, however, cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion.
  • Ethics is not always following laws:A good legal system often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe. But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Law can become ethically corrupt.
    • Eg: Whistle blower – Edward Snowden

Conclusion:

Till now we have seen what ethics is and what ethics is not. In our next section, we’ll deal with questions like: What is the essence of ethics? Why do we need to be ethical? What are the consequences if one follow ethics in his/her life.

 

References:

  • https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/what-is-ethics/
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/intro_1.shtml
  • http://www.ethics.org.au/about/what-is-ethics
  • Ethics Integrity and Aptitude by Santosh Ajmera.
  • The Lexicon for Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude by Niraj Kumar, Chronicle Publications.

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