Definitions and Concepts for Ethical Analysis
[Many discussions of ethics and ethical issues founder on disagreements about definitions. Ethics is unique among disciplines in that practitioners often cannot agree on a common definition of their topic. Ethics Scoreboard can’t solve that problem, which is many centuries old. Here it attempts to put forth definitions that explain what words mean when they are used on this website.]
Values: Those qualities of behavior, thought, and character that society regards as being intrinsically good, having desirable results, and worthy of emulation by others.
Morals: Modes of conduct that are taught and accepted as embodying principles of right and good.
Morality: A system of determining right and wrong that is established by some authority, such as a church, an organization, a society, or a government.
Ethics: The process of determining right and wrong conduct.
Ethical System: A specific formula for distinguishing right from wrong.
Unethical: An action or conduct which violates the principles of one or more ethical systems, or which is counter to an accepted ethical value, such as honesty.
Non-ethical considerations: Powerful human motivations that are not based on right or wrong, but on considerations of survival and well-being, such as health, security, love, wealth, or self esteem.
Non-Ethical Considerations: Defined above, non-ethical considerations are important because they are often the powerful impediments to ethical conduct, and the cause of many conflicts of interest. Non-ethical considerations are many and diverse, and include:
· and many more
Ethical Dilemma: This is an ethical problem in which the ethical choice involves ignoring a powerful non-ethical consideration. Do the right thing, but lose your job, a friend, a lover, or an opportunity for advancement. A non-ethical consideration can be powerful and important enough to justify choosing it over the strict ethical action.
Ethical Conflict: When two ethical principles demand opposite results in the same situation, this is an ethical conflict. Solving ethical conflicts may require establishing a hierarchy or priority of ethical principles, or examining the situation through another ethical system.
Ethical Gray Area: Gray areas are situations and problems that don’t fit neatly into any existing mode of ethical analysis. In some cases, there may even be a dispute regarding whether ethics is involved.
Reciprocity: The ethical system embodied by The Golden Rule, and given slightly different form in other religions and philosophies. It is a straight-forward way of judging conduct affecting others by putting oneself in the position of those affected. Reciprocity should always be available in any ethical analysis, but it is frequently too simple to be helpful in complex ethical situations with multiple competing interests.
Absolutism: Absolutist systems do not permit any exception to certain ethical principles. The champion of all absolutists, philosopher Emmanuel Kant, declared that the ethical act was one that the doer was willing to have stand as a universal principle.
One principle of absolutism is that human beings can never be harmed for any objective, no matter how otherwise worthwhile. Absolutism has the advantage of making tough ethical calls seem easy, and the disadvantage of making debate impossible. One sees absolutism reflected today in the controversies over war, torture, abortion, cloning, and capital punishment.
Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism accepts the existence of ethical conflicts and the legitimacy of some ethical dilemmas, and proposes ethical analysis based on the question, “Which act will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people?’ It entails the balancing of greater and lesser goods, and is useful for unraveling complex ethical problems. Its drawback, or trap, is that utilitarianism can slide into “The ends justify the means” without some application of absolutist and reciprocity principles.
The Gödel Incompleteness Principle: Czech-born mathematician Kurt Gödel proved that at the margins of any large logical system, such as arithmetic, or conceptual construct, such as Newtonian physics, problems would arise that could not be solved without going outside the system itself. If the system were enlarged to include these problems’ solution, it would lose its integrity as a system. Hence all systems must be incomplete. In ethical terms, Gödel’s liberating discovery means that no one ethical system will work for every problem, and that the fact that such a system does not solve a particular problem does not mean the system is invalid.
Cognitive Dissonance: Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon first identified by Leon Festinger. It occurs when there is a discrepancy between what a person believes, knows and values, and persuasive information that calls these into question. The discrepancy causes psychological discomfort, and the mind adjusts to reduce the discrepancy. In ethics, cognitive dissonance is important in its ability to alter values, such as when an admired celebrity embraces behavior that his or her admirers deplore. Their dissonance will often result in changing their attitudes toward the behavior. Dissonance also leads to rationalizations of unethical conduct, as when the appeal and potential benefits of a large amount of money makes unethical actions to acquire it seem less objectionable than if they were applied to smaller amounts.