What is ethics and how should we approach it?
Ethics is defined as moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity. This definition on its own does not tell us much about what ethics really is. If you try asking people what they think ethics is, you would also get many different answers. Just as in our ethics classes where different scenarios were put forward and we were required to evaluate the situation and take a stand based on what we believed, there were always opposing views. More interesting though, was the fact that even among the people in the same camp, the reasons that they based their decision on differed greatly.
The common approach
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After all, the people who make the laws are themselves influenced by their own feelings and beliefs. For example, slavery was a legally recognized system in which people were considered the property of others and could be bought or sold, much like a commodity. Just because slavery was a legally recognized system, does that make it right?
Cultural norms or standards accepted by society
We often believe that if everyone does something, it must be ok to do so. But while certain behaviours or practices may be accepted by society, it does not mean that they are right. Relating back to the example of slavery in the previous paragraph, throughout the 18th and 19th century in the US, many white households made use of slave labour. It was clearly viewed as an acceptable practice and no one even batted an eyelid to the fact that it was morally wrong. Almost all of us today view slavery as being immoral and a violation of basic human rights, but yet it was deemed to be acceptable.
Just to further nit-pick on using cultural norms or standards to define ethics, if we view ethics as being standards that are acceptable to society, we then have the problem of establishing what exactly these standards are. By definition, a standard must be one that everyone agrees to, yet in reality this is almost impossible. As we have already seen in class, no one was able to completely agree on any one issue, and this was just a class of thirty eight people. If such a small number of people could not come to agreement, it can well be expected that an entire population would not be able to do so.
We have looked at how using the common approaches to ethics does not hold due to the fact that they suffer from inconsistencies based on how they are interpreted. If this is the case, then how should we look at ethics and what should we do in order to conduct ourselves in an ethical manner?
A philosophical take
There have been several philosophical approaches put forward, such as The Utilitarian Approach, The Rights Approach and The Justice Approach, to help...