What is ethics?
Of means and ends
Ethics is everywhere. We are surrounded by ethical problems and ethical dilemmas. In a hospital, you might have multiple patients but only a limited amount of resources, so the question is, whom do you treat first. Or we have countries that are poor and other countries that are rich and both have somehow to share the burdens of global warming. How do we share these resources in a fair way?
These might be some ethics questions.
Ethics is the study of how we ought to behave, and why. There are many different theories of ethics, for example, utilitarianism (we ought to behave so that we maximise benefit for all), or Kantian ethics (we ought to treat all human beings as ends). Ethics only becomes relevant when our behaviour affects others and not only ourselves.
Think of some situations in your everyday life and whether these are examples of moral behaviour or not. For example, if you think of attending a class, or going to work, or being honest. Are these moral issues?
Most people would probably say to be honest is a moral command. It’s what the Bible and other religions tell you. Being honest is a morally right behaviour, while going to work or attending one’s classes is something one does for one’s own benefit: you want to earn money, you want to earn a degree. But it is not something that we would immediately perceive as a moral action.
So what makes not lying, or being honest a moral command as opposed to going to your classes or eating lunch? You can say “I will eat lunch now,” or “I will eat a cookie every day before I go to bed.” Would this be a moral command or not?
The first thing that comes to mind is that when you think about actions like, I have to tell the truth, I should not kill, I should be loyal to my family, or other commands like that, they have to do with other people. So these are not commands that affect only me and nobody else. While other resolutions, like “I will eat a cookie every night before I go to bed” affect only me; except if this cookie is very unhealthy for me and I’m slowly killing myself eating these cookies, then eating them might affect others who depend on me.
But as long as I’m not harming anyone, what I do in my room when the door is closed affects only me. And there doesn’t seem to be a moral component to this.
Let’s say I’m driving on a private street on my own land. I am free to drive on the right side or on the left, as I please. It does not make a moral difference, which side I drive on. I’m not harming either myself or anyone else by driving right or left. On the other hand, if I do the same on a highway, and I decide to drive on the wrong side, then this becomes an immoral action because it now affects and endangers others.
Means and ends
The second criterion, when we talk about what is moral and what is not, is to look at why exactly you act in a particular way. What goals are you pursuing when you act?
So, for example, I say: I want to attend my classes, or go to my office. Then one could ask, why do I want to do these things?
And I will say, for example, that I attend my classes because I want to graduate. This is the reason that makes me attend classes. So I have a goal, I want to graduate, and attending classes is a means to that goal. My graduation is the end, is what I want to achieve with my actions, and the means are the ways in which I achieve my goals. Attending my classes is, in this case, only justified because of the end. If I didn’t want to graduate, because, for example, I have already graduated, or I am already rich and I don’t need another degree, then why would I want to attend classes? It could be out of interest, but then this would be another end. If I didn’t have any end that is served by attending classes, I wouldn’t attend any classes.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher, had the idea that moral commands are those where we are supposed to be doing something without pursuing any end by that action, except that we want to act morally right. Moral actions would be those that we perform for their own sake, rather than for some other end.
So when I say that I have to be honest, I can ask “why do I have to be honest?” The most common answer to that would be “because it’s right to be honest.” There is no other purpose to that.
See, if I pursue any other goal by being honest, then it’s not really morally valuable any more. Let’s say, I’m only honest because I read somewhere in the statistics that honest employees earn more money. Would I then be acting morally good by being honest? No. Suddenly this isn’t a moral action anymore. In this case, I wouldn’t be morally good by being honest. I’m now just somebody who wants to game the system and earn more money. My honesty is only a means to another end, and then it’s not morally right or valuable anymore.
So being morally honest means, to be honest without having any other ultimate motivation. It means to be honest just because it’s good to be honest.
Hypothetical and categorical rules
Kant distinguishes in this way between hypothetical rules (these are rules that I follow because I want to achieve a particular end); and categorical rules (these are the moral rules that I follow unconditionally, and not just because I want to achieve some end).
“Categorical” here means always right. I always have to do the morally right action. I always have to be honest. I always have to refrain from killing other people; and so on.
And so Immanuel Kant said that morality consists in following categorical rules of behaviour. This is a useful distinction because it fits our intuitions. It agrees with the way we would normally think about moral actions. But there are also moral philosophers who would disagree with this. For example, utilitarians. For utilitarianism, there are no categorical rules at all. Whatever I do is hypothetical, and all my actions are directed towards the ultimate goal of maximising the happiness and benefit of all.
Morality and ethics
Sometimes you hear people talking about morality and moral rules, and sometimes they talk about ethics or ethical principles. So what’s the difference? Are these two synonyms?
They are often used in a similar way, morality and ethics, and many people don’t distinguish between them. But you could try to look at the way we use these words. Generally “morality” has a more personal feeling to it. It’s about your own behaviour following rules that are categorically good, without necessarily having to be aware of why you follow these specific rules and not other rules.
So let’s say your grandmother comes from a village somewhere in the mountains, and she lived her whole life in that village. She has a few chickens that she is raising and selling. She is a good woman, in that she never killed anyone, she never lies, she’s always honest, she sells the eggs of her chickens for a fair price, and so on. And she just lives well there in her own little world. She has never left this village, she’s not educated, she can perhaps not even read and write.
This grandmother, she does have a morality, she is following moral rules. She’s not cheating, she’s not stealing, she’s not mistreating her chickens and so on. So she is living a moral life, but she doesn’t have ethics. Because ethics generally is assumed to be thinking about morality.
So ethics is when we think about what is moral and what is not. If your grandmother says “I don’t lie to other people” that this is her morality. But if you asked her, “why you don’t lie?” or “what if you lied?” then you would be questioning these principles, so you would be doing ethics.
When I say, “people should treat chickens well,” then I could ask, why should I treat the chickens well? What’s the reason for that command? Trying to find this reason then becomes a pursuit of ethics.
Thanks for reading! Photo by Cong H on Unsplash.