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What is ethics?

What is Ethics?

Ethics aims to answer one big question.

How should I live?

Ethical beliefs shape the way we live – what we do, what we make and the world we create through our choices. Ethical questions explore what Aristotle called 'a life well-lived'. 

Ethics isn't just an exercise for philosophers or intellectuals. It is at the core of everyday life.

We ask ethical questions whenever we think about how we should act. Being ethical is a part of what defines us as human beings. We are rational, thinking, choosing creatures. We all have the capacity to make conscious choices – although we often act out of habit or in line with the views of the crowd. We could all make conscious and conscientious ethical choices if we wanted to.

We ask ethical questions whenever we think about how we should act. Being ethical is a part of what defines us as human beings.

There are times when those questions become challenges we just can't resolve alone.

Complex ethical problems can be individual and private or widespread and systemic, involving groups, organisations or whole communities. The distress these challenges cause is real and pervasive, leaving people stuck and struggling, anxious or broken.

Ethics provides a framework for answering these questions well. It allows us to be consistent in our judgements, provide reasons for our beliefs and to critically examine opinions. Most importantly, ethics allows us to act in a manner that accords with a set of core values and principles.

Ethical people have what philosopher Thomas Aquinas called a ‘well-informed conscience’. They live what Socrates called ‘an examined life’ – a life particularly associated with being human. Ethical people try to answer the question of how to live by reflecting on difficult situations. They then act in a way that is true to who they are and what they believe.  

Why be ethical?

Lots of people like to play devil's advocate and ask why they should be ethical. After all, sometimes doing what's ethical comes at a personal cost. If ethics means we can’t exploit other people, tell lies, or steal when these things are in our best interests, why bother?

Ethical questions are an inescapable part of being human. We think and act according to ethical judgements all the time, whether we want to or not. Often the things that drive our actions are unknown to us – underpinning habits that lead us to act for good or ill without serious thought. Ethical reflection helps us make responsible judgements that reflect what we care about most. 

There are a few other things you should know about ethics.

It's not all theory and complex dilemmas

Ethics is not only for the 'big issues'. Should we execute criminals? Can we destroy embryos for medical research? Lie under oath? 

These issues are complex and deserve attention, but ethics covers more than these big things. 
It informs our day-to-day interactions. Should we tell a friend a truth even though we know it will upset them? Must we buy organic free-range eggs even though they cost more than the alternatives? Is it luxurious to spend my money on an overseas trip when there are people dying of starvation?

Ethics also looks beyond specific actions. Yes, we want to know how to act right now, but we also want to know how to structure our lives as a whole. This is the part of ethics Aristotle called eudaimonia – best translated as 'flourishing'. 

Ethics helps us to do the right thing, but it also helps us to live a life worth living. 

Not every ethical question has one right answer. That's ok.

There is no ethical theory that can resolve every situation perfectly. Lots of things in our lives have moral value - sometimes they come into conflict. Moral dilemmas are inevitable. 
Should you tell a lie to protect a family member who has done something wrong? Lots of people would say lying is always wrong. But those same people probably think we have special duties to take care of our families. Our answer in a case like this depends on how much we value certain ideals - truth or family. 

What if we value both equally? This is where ethics gets tough. Unfortunately, even when faced with a moral dilemma we still have to make a decision. 

In these cases we need to accept the limits to certainty when trying to decide what we ought to do. Sometimes our range of choice is reduced to picking the least bad alternative. Sometimes we may feel genuinely 'stuck' by a problem. In those cases we may just have to trust our experience and our conscience.

Luckily most decisions aren't moral dilemmas and we can work out what to do with the help of a few ethical tools. There are questions it's worth asking before we make a decision.

1. Would I be happy for this decision to be headlining the news tomorrow?

This question is what's known as the Sunlight Test. Imagine how it might feel if your decision – and the reasons you made it – were public knowledge. What if the people you most admire knew what you'd done and why? Note – it’s the ‘don’t be ashamed’ test not the ‘don’t get caught’ test.

2. Is there a universal rule that applies here? 

Is there a rule that any reasonable person should apply to this situation regardless of the consequences? Some rules are unbreakable, even when the stakes are high. For instance, we should never act in ways that undermine the equality and dignity of all people – ourselves included. The rules are often associated with duties – some of which we create ourselves, like when we make a promise.

3. Will the proposed course of action bring about a good result?

We often think about ethics in terms of consequences. 'The greatest good for the greatest number' is a maxim many people recognise and accept. Consequences are an important part of ethical decisions, but are they everything? 

We should be aware of what we're sacrificing when trying to bring about good consequences. Are we violating an important principle? Are we compromising our own values? If so, have we considered these facts when balancing harms and benefits?

4. What would happen if everybody did this?

Would you be happy if your reason for action was used by everyone in the same circumstance? If not, then what makes you so special? Most ethical frameworks suggest the right decision for one person should be right for everybody in the same position. This test helps guard against 'special pleading' – when we make an exception for ourselves or different groups. 

5. What will this proposed action do to my character or the character of my organisation?

Many people believe that our decisions shape our character and vice versa. That is, we can't lie and cheat without becoming a fraudulent liar. Subsequently, if we're a liar we'll tend to lie more often. 

Think about whether your action is establishing a habit either for you or your organisation. Is it a good habit (virtue) or a bad one (vice)? If I cut corners on a work job today am I developing a habit of laziness that may affect my future work? 

6. Is the proposed course of action consistent with my values and principles?

Plenty of people and organisations are happy to tell you what they stand for – but do they walk the talk? Are my actions reflecting my ethical beliefs? Most ethical systems have no time for hypocrisy. 

Answering these questions doesn't guarantee everyone will accept our decision. Moral disagreement is extremely common. But even the answer to our question doesn't achieve universal approval, the way in which we reach those answers matters. Ethics allows us to explore these questions in a way that is sincere, rational, competent and honest. 

In a nutshell ethics is about…

  • Relationships.
  • Struggling to develop a well-informed conscience.
  • Being true to the idea of who we are and what we stand for.
  • Having the courage to explore difficult questions.
  • Accepting the cost of doing what we think is right.
  • Asking one simple question – ‘what ought I to do?’
Do you have an ethical dilemma? Contact Ethi-call, the good decision helpline. 1800 672 303.