What is ethics?
By Logan Watts, PhD
Happy New Year!
During my recent flights from New York to Texas and back for the holidays, I found myself consumed with reflection on the word ethics and the question: What is ethics? I began by recording a few notes on my phone, writing whatever came to mind.
Then, I thought, these phrases are not really definitions of ethics as much as they are examples of ethics in action. That is, where we find individuals or organizations that do these things, people are more likely to think of these individuals or organizations as ethical.
I continued my search for an answer to the question “what is ethics” by identifying some common definitions according to different groups. For example, compliance professionals often say that ethics is about knowing and following the rules. I like this definition, but it has flaws. What if the rules are unjust? After all, humans are the ones who construct rules, and humans are imperfect creatures. Even if the intentions behind a rule are good, we cannot always anticipate how a rule may be misused. And what about the huge number of implicit rules that people are expected to follow even though they are not codified in some policy or legislation? We expect people to say “please,” and “thank you,” and we call them jerks or something worse for failing to honor these basic social norms. Also, there are many actions that would be considered legal, but unethical. It’s not feasible to write rules that account for every possible situation. In other words, knowing and following the rules is certainly an important aspect of ethics, but it does not constitute ethics entirely. Ethics is clearly about more than compliance.
Another definition of ethics can be found in the professional guidelines of scientific organizations. Scientists often say that ethics is about minimizing harm and producing knowledge that benefits everyone. As a psychologist educated in this particular model of ethics, it is difficult for me to disagree with this definition. However, this definition is also flawed. Notice the emphasis in this definition on minimizing harm, not on avoiding harm altogether. This is because scientific research and practice can involve some degree of harm. Consider the field of medicine, for example. Virtually all medical interventions, including over-the-counter treatments like Advil or Tylenol, can result in unwanted side effects for some individuals. Yet as long as the total benefits for the population in general outweigh the negative side effects and costs to some (and there is not some alternative treatment that is more cost-effective), the treatment continues to be used. In addition, new treatments—with adverse effects that can be painful or lethal—are often tested on animals prior to being tested on humans. Better animals than people, right?
So, many of us are willing to permit some degree of harm in research if there is the potential to advance human medicine. Depending on the situation, scientists argue that a degree of harm is sometimes justified as long as there is the possibility of benefiting the greater good. This definition of ethics makes me, and I suspect some others, uncomfortable. Questions that come to mind include: Who is responsible for making these cost-benefit calculations? Can these people be trusted? How can we estimate the true cost, in objective terms, of harm to an individual human or animal? I am not suggesting that medical research and practice are inherently unethical. I’m grateful to the scientists who have made these difficult decisions, allowing me to live in a time and place where healthcare is so advanced. I’m simply suggesting that the definition of ethics provided by scientists is not wholly satisfactory.
Finally, it is difficult to discuss what ethics is without considering the “golden rule”: Treating others as we would like to be treated. Of all the definitions considered so far, this one is perhaps the most applicable to different situations. Regardless of one’s role—manager or employee, teacher or student, doctor or patient, parent or child, friend or stranger—many of us are capable of imagining how we would like to be treated by others. And yet, even the golden rule has its flaws as a definition of ethics. Specifically, we might improve on the golden rule by reducing the focus on ourselves (i.e., how I want to be treated) and increasing the focus on others (i.e., how you want to be treated). We should ultimately treat people how they want to be treated. Put differently, ethics is ultimately about making decisions that “show respect to human beings” (DuBois, 2008; p. 46).
Clearly, defining ethics is no easy task. And I don’t expect we’ll ever find a perfect definition that applies to all situations. I think all of the definitions reviewed here are potentially useful depending on the context. But I wonder, is there a common thread underlying all of these definitions? Perhaps. Here’s the best I’ve found so far to the question: What is ethics?
At its most basic level,
Ethics is the art of acting in ways that make people feel respected.
DuBois, J. M. (2008). Solving ethical problems: Analyzing ethics cases and justifying decisions. In Ethics in Mental Health Research (pp. 46-57). New York: Oxford University Press.
The Ethics Advantage Team