There are times when the right and wrong decisions are obvious, but what about the times where the outcome is less clear? Situations where, if nobody knew you made the wrong decision, you would benefit financially, emotionally, or otherwise. Ethics help us navigate the gray area between absolute right and morally wrong. They provide the structure that helps us make a decision we can be proud of. For me personally, ethics are the rules that society must adhere to.
Descartes may have said “I think, therefore I am” but it is not only thinking that makes mankind sentient, it’s the ability to think and act ethically. Without ethics, society would be reduced to the type of animal behaviour that is seen in nature. Hunt, kill, feed, fornicate. When mankind started to think about the outcome of their action, or inaction, ethics were born. Mankind demonstrates its difference from the rest of the animal kingdom by being imaginative enough to follow a concept through the various possible outcomes, and then deciding on the action that best suits the personal beliefs of the person in question.
There are many schools of thought to help us make our ethical choices. Epicurus believed if everyone is honest, prudent, and employs justice when dealing with others, they would be free from retribution from society. Basically, if everyone is good, everything will be good. John Stuart Mills held a variation on this belief, but felt it was more pure to remove the pleasure for oneself. Mills Utilitarianism provides a world where our rewards are not considered in our actions. For Mills, a mantra of “I will cut, you can choose” ensures that everyone gets a fair slice of the pie.
Immanuel Kant had a different idea about ethics. Kant saw everything as black or white, and mankind has a “duty without exception.” This view affords no wiggle room on any decision. If the outcome is bad in any way, then it is ethically wrong. W.D. Ross provided a more lenient view of Kant’s philosophy. By providing “self-evident duties” Ross helps us navigate the gray areas of the map by providing guidelines for us to follow. Ross starts with “First – do no harm” but then juxtaposes this with the second rule of “Make amends if you do harm.” By allowing for violations of the first rule, Ross allows mankind to make the decisions that suit their personal beliefs.
The argument against the previous philosophies is they are based on people, society, having an inherent understanding of what is good or bad. John Rawls developed a theory of justice that creates a “veil of ignorance.” By framing the ethical question in a way that the asker doesn’t know if they will benefit or be the victim within the equation, a true answer will develop. The understanding is that if you don’t know if you will benefit or suffer from the decision, you will create a more “fair” outcome for either party.
Just like humanity, ethical situations are evolving. Decisions that were considered ethical ten years ago are reevaluated because society has decided the original decision was not the correct one. We need to continue to explore the decisions from our past and determine if the answer we came up with is still acceptable today. Ethics are not static, but if we are consistent in our application of the above philosophies, we can ensure that we are able to carefully evaluate our decisions and further progress in our march away from our past mentality of hunt, kill, feed, and fornicate.