Ethics 101: Just the Basics, Please
In this part . . .
Ethics is the most practical kind of philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that all you need to study it is basic common sense. You also need to know some of the lingo and some of the basic assumptions about the field. That’s what this part of the book is about.
Here we discuss some basic distinctions, and then we cordially invite you to ask why you should care about ethics in the first place. Because you also need to avoid some really important pitfalls in your ethical thinking, such as the idea that ethics is really just a matter of opinion, we devote a chapter to this topic. Getting away from this idea is important so you can appreciate the rich debates about ethics in the rest of the book and what they have to do with living an ethical life.
Approaching Ethics: What Is It and Why Should You Care?
In This Chapter
Surveying fundamental ethical definitions and distinctions you need to know
Understanding why you should be ethical
Determining what’s involved in making a commitment to an ethical life
You probably wouldn’t try to make a cake without ingredients, pots, and pans, right? Well the same goes for making a recipe for an ethical life. You have to know some things before you start cooking. And although living an ethical life isn’t always easy, the basic tools are easy to master.
This chapter starts with some basics regarding ethics to help you get a better grasp of the subject. We help you by clarifying some basic distinctions that quickly emerge in your study of ethics. We also explain why being ethical is important. We finish the chapter with a discussion of what’s involved in making a commitment to living an ethical life. Consider this chapter your jumping-off point into the wonderful world of ethics.
Knowing the Right Words: Ethical Vocabulary
Although ethics and morality are essential parts of human life, not many people understand how to talk about them. Good, evil, right, wrong, great, and bad: Who could possibly sort through all that mess? Getting a firm grasp on these words and distinctions is important so you don’t fall into any misunderstandings later. The following sections explain important ethics vocabulary words and how to use them.
Focusing on should and ought
Fortunately you don’t really need to sort through lots of different terms. In fact, most of ethics and morality can be boiled down to one simple concept that can be expressed using the words should and ought. “Good” or “right” actions are actions that you ought to do. “Bad” character traits are ones you should try not to develop. “Evil” traits are those you should really try to avoid. Isn’t it cool how just these two words can unify so many ethical concepts?
To clearly understand what ethics means in terms of should and ought, consider this example: Most people are comfortable considering what science is about. Science tries to figure out the way the world is, was, or will be. The following are all scientific questions (some easier to answer than others):
What will be the effect of detonating a nuclear weapon in a major city?
What led to the extinction of the dodo bird?
Is there a beer in the fridge?
Ought we to be detonating nuclear weapons around large numbers of people?
Should endangered species be protected from human hunting?
Should I really have that last beer in the fridge before driving home?
You probably have a big question dawning on you right about now: How do I find out what I ought to do? It’s a great question; it’s the subject of the rest of this book.
Avoiding the pitfall of separating ethics and morality
Although the terms ethics and morality have two different definitions in the dictionary, throughout this book we use them interchangeably and don’t make any effort to distinguish between the ideas. The truth is that you can argue all day about whether something is immoral or just unethical, whether someone has ethics but no morals, or whether ethics is about society but morality is about you.
So, seriously, don’t worry about the difference between ethics and morality. Your ethical conversations will make a lot more progress if you just concentrate on the “oughtiness” of things. Professional philosophers don’t bother distinguishing between the two lots of the time, so you shouldn’t either.
Putting law in its proper place
Even though you don’t need to differentiate ethics and morality, you should distinguish between the concepts of ethics (or morality) and legality. If you don’t, you may end up confusing the ethical thing to do with the legal thing to do. There’s some overlap between ethics and the law, but they aren’t always in line with one another. For example, consider speeding. Speeding is illegal, but that doesn’t mean it’s always unethical. It seems ethically acceptable to speed in order to get someone to the hospital for an emergency, for instance. You may still be punished according to the law, but that doesn’t automatically make your act unethical.
The law also sometimes permits people to do unethical things. Cheating on your partner is usually ethically wrong, for instance. But breaking romantic commitments isn’t typically illegal (and even where it is, laws against adultery aren’t usually enforced).