One of the best courses I ever took at university was Bioethics. It was an elective that had nothing to do with my major, but it looked interesting. I was quite taken with the notion of “ethics” as something beyond a person’s morality or feelings – the idea that you could make decisions about the concepts right and wrong in certain situations based on a standard that it in place long before the situation arises.
Over the years I’ve taken other ethics courses. Ethics has become one of my favourite topics to read, think or talk about. The most difficult thing to wrap your head around is defining ethics to yourself. The best way, I think, is to understand what ethics is not:
- Feelings: Following your feelings will not always lead you to do what’s right. Feelings, in fact, will often cause you to do things that are quite, quite wrong.
- Religion: Most religions set high ethical standards and can provide motivation for ethical behaviour, but ethics are not just religion and not the same as religious beliefs.
- The Law: Like feelings, the law does not always proscribe what is right. Apartheid was a law; slavery was a law.
- Social Acceptability: Most societies have an acceptable standard of practices that are ethical, but societies and aspects of society can become corrupted.
- Morality: It’s sometimes said that ethics is the philosophical study of morality. So, something may be ethically wrong, but not immoral by most people’s standards. Likewise, something you believe to be moral can be ethically wrong.
Ethics usually come in to play when there is a serious personal, business or other dilemma over which you have to make a decision. There was a good example on Criminal Minds the other day.
There episode concerned some nut who was sprinkling anthrax around in public places – parks, subways, malls, etc.. No one knew how or why or where he would strike next. People were dying. The FBI was frantically investigating but couldn’t warn the general public without causing massive panic. Those closely involved with the investigation were given a vaccine that might protect them if they came in contact with the anthrax, but that wasn’t even certain because the particular formula being sprinkled around was heretofore unknown.
The youngest FBI investigator, Jennifer, has a young child who spends his day at home with the nanny. Jennifer wants to call the nanny to tell her to keep the son inside the house no matter. Jennifer’s boss, Aaron (ably portrayed by Thomas Gibson formerly of Dharma and Greg fame) tells her she can’t do that without arousing suspicion and potentially harming the investigation. After all, who wouldn’t panic a bit if an FBI person tells you not to take her child out of the house, but won’t tell you why?
So, throughout the entire episode the young mother is frantic. She is torn between making sure her child is safe and the greater good of society at large and the job to which she’s pledged her primary allegiance.
Using ethical standard what would you do in a similar situation?
The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics suggests there are 5 basic questions you can ask yourself to determine if you are living and making decisions within an ethical framework:
- Did I practice any virtues today? Virtues are the good things we learn throughout our lives: integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, compassion, etc…
- Did I do more good than harm today? Or did I try to? Consider the short term and long-term consequences of your actions.
- Did I treat people with dignity and respect today? All human beings should be treated with dignity simply because they are human. People have moral rights, especially the fundamental right to be treated as free and equal human beings, not as things to be manipulated, controlled, or cast away. How did my actions today respect the moral rights and the dignified treatment to which every person is entitled?
- Was I fair and just today? Did I treat each person the same unless there was some relevant moral reason to treat him or her differently? Justice requires that we be fair in the way we distribute benefits and burdens. Whom did I benefit and whom did I burden? How did I decide?
- Was my community better because I was in it? Was I better because I was in my community? Consider your primary community, however you define it–neighborhood, apartment building, family, company, church, etc. Now ask yourself, Was I able to get beyond my own interests to make that community stronger? Was I able to draw on my community’s strengths to help me in my own process of becoming more human?
Hello? Is anyone still reading?
Disclaimer: Sorry. It’s been dark and gloomy and rainy for 3 days now. I tend to crawl up my own ass when I’m deprived of sunshine for too long.