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4 questions ethicists always get asked

by John Neil
16 June 2017
EVERYDAY ETHICS
JohnNeil.jpgWhat questions would you most like to ask an ethicist? John Neil, lead ethicist of our Advice and Education team, tackles the top questions people keep posing and breaks down some of the most frequent objections to ethics we face every day.

1. There are so many conflicting versions of ethics out there – legal, social, religious. Which should I listen to?

With all these voices vying for our attention it can be difficult to know who to listen to. An important starting point with ethics is to untangle the nature of these conflicting voices to better be able to hear our own.
 
Our beliefs and values are influenced by our upbringing, community, professions and for many people, their faith. It’s useful to think of these voices – social customs, the law and religion – as ‘morality’ rather than ethics.
 
Morality is a set of deeply held and widely shared norms and rules within a community. Like ethics, morality provides us with opinions, rules, laws and principles to guide our choices and actions. But unlike ethics, morality can be followed unthinkingly and without asking questions.

Ethics is about reflecting on who we are, what we value, and how we want to live in a world where many others may not share the same values and principles as us. 

What makes ethics both timely and timeless is it arises in any moment when we find ourselves faced with the question of what is right. This question is both a philosophical and practical one. Philosophically, it involves exploring the nature of concepts like truth, wisdom and belief and providing a justification for right and good actions.
 
On a practical level, it is a question we find ourselves asking every day. Whether it’s the big ethical issues – abortion, capital punishment, immigration – or everyday ethical questions – whether to tell the truth to a friend when it may hurt their feelings, or being asked to provide a reference for a close colleague who isn’t qualified for the job – ethical questions are inescapable parts of being human.
 
Ethics does not rely on history, tradition, religion or the law to solely to define for us what is good or right. Ethics is about reflecting on who we are, what we care about, and how we want to live in a world where many others may not share the same values and principles as us.

2. Isn’t ethics just a matter of opinion? If there’s no way to tell who is right and who is wrong isn’t my opinion as good as anyone’s?  

 In the 1990’s Mike Godwin famously argued when it comes to online arguments, the longer and more heated a debate gets, the more likely somebody will bring up the Nazis in an attempt to close it down.
 
When it comes to discussions of ethics there is an inverse law which anyone who has taught an ethics class will have experienced. The shorter the conversation about ethics, the greater the likelihood somebody will claim, “Ethics is just personal opinion”.

When the stakes are high, it becomes abundantly clear that we want to hold others to a similar standard of what we think matters. 

This view implies ethics is subjective. What follows from this is there are no better or worse opinions on ethics.
 
However, it would be hard to find someone say in response to being robbed, “The thief had their own values and I have mine, they are entitled to their view, so I won’t pursue this further”. When the stakes are high, it becomes abundantly clear we want to hold others to a similar standard of what we think matters.
 
We will inevitably reach a point in any discussion of ethics where people will strongly express a fundamental moral belief – for example, it’s wrong to steal, to lie or to harm others. These opinions are the beginning of a common, rational basis for discussions about what we should or shouldn’t do.
 
(And when those discussions become heated, let’s try and leave Hitler out of it).

3. I’m a good person, why do I need ethics? 

Ethics helps good people become better people.
 
Being a good person doesn’t necessarily mean you will always know what’s right. Good people disagree with each other about what is right all the time. And good people often don’t know what to do in difficult situations, especially when these situations involve ethical dilemmas.

We all have the tendency to act unethically given the ‘right’ conditions. Fear, guilt, stress and anxiety have been shown to be significant factors that prevent us acting ethically. 

Good people make bad choices. Despite the widespread view that bad things happen due to a small percentage of so called ‘evil people’ intentionally doing the wrong thing, the reality is that all of us can make poor decisions.
 
We all have the tendency to act unethically given the ‘right’ conditions. Fear, guilt, stress and anxiety have been shown to be significant factors that prevent us acting ethically.
 
Food has been shown to directly influence the quality of decisions made by judges. Other studies have shown that even innocuous influences can have a disproportionate effect on our decisions. For example, smells affect the likelihood a person will help other people.
 
Ethics is not only about being aware of our values and principles. It is also about being alive to our limited view of the world and striving to expand our horizons by trying to better see the world as it really is.  

4. People only do ethics when it makes them look good. Why would anyone put ethics above self-interest? 

One argument often heard in philosophy and psychology is that everything we do, from the compassionate to the heroic, is ultimately done for our own benefit. When we boil it down, we only save lives, donate to charity or care for a friend because these things make us feel good or benefit us.
 
However, despite being a widely held view it is only half the story – and not even the most interesting part of the story. While human beings are undoubtedly self-interested there is a wealth of evidence that shows human beings are hard wired to care for others, including total strangers.
 
Research has shown the existence of ‘mirror neurons’ in our brains that naturally respond to other people’s feelings.
 
Ethics is rooted in this fundamental human capacity to be connected to others. It provides a rational foundation for this connection. This is the foundation of empathy. It’s an intrinsic part of what makes us human.
 
John Neil is the joint head of Advice & Education at The Ethics Centre.

 

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