What is Ethics?

This document is designed as an introduction to thinking ethically. We

all have an image of our better selves-of how we are when we act

ethically or are “at our best.” We probably also have an image of what

an ethical community, an ethical business, an ethical government, or

an ethical society should be. Ethics really has to do with all these

levels-acting ethically as individuals, creating ethical organizations and

governments, and making our society as a whole ethical in the way it

treats everyone.

What is Ethics?

Simply stated, ethics refers to standards of behavior that tell us how

human beings ought to act in the many situations in which they find

themselves-as friends, parents, children, citizens, businesspeople,

teachers, professionals, and so on.

It is helpful to identify what ethics is NOT:

 Ethics is not the same as feelings. Feelings provide important

information for our ethical choices. Some people have highly

developed habits that make them feel bad when they do

something wrong, but many people feel good even though they

are doing something wrong. And often our feelings will tell us it

is uncomfortable to do the right thing if it is hard.

 Ethics is not religion. Many people are not religious, but ethics

applies to everyone. Most religions do advocate high ethical

standards but sometimes do not address all the types of

problems we face.

 Ethics is not following the law. A good system of law does

incorporate many ethical standards, but law can deviate from

what is ethical. Law can become ethically corrupt, as some

totalitarian regimes have made it. Law can be a function of

power alone and designed to serve the interests of narrow

groups. Law may have a difficult time designing or enforcing

standards in some important areas, and may be slow to address

new problems.

 Ethics is not following culturally accepted norms. Some cultures

are quite ethical, but others become corrupt -or blind to certain

ethical concerns (as the United States was to slavery before the

Civil War). “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not a

satisfactory ethical standard.