Ethics 101

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”          Franklin D. Roosevelt

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My favorite course as a professor was my Professional Ethics course—not necessarily an opinion shared by my students, at least initially. But many warmed up to it as the weeks went by. I’ve always been drawn to trying to understand right, wrong, and shades of gray. So, I’ve decided to blog about morals and ethics for a while because our current social order seems perilously bereft of basic moral or ethical understandings. I’ll be drawing from my ethics text, and though I doubt our publisher (Wiley) actually minds, I mention this so I won’t be accused of plagiarizing myself or John, my humble, handsome co-author.

The struggle to define the rightly lived life and the best ways to live together as a human community is an ancient one. The Rig Veda, the Torah, the Greeks and Romans, the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius—some of these dating many centuries B.C.—are examples of thoughtful people wrestling with how to be good, fulfilled human beings, functioning within a healthy community. As Robert Wright notes in his book, The Moral Animal, we are social beings. Psychologically, spiritually, and physically, our survival depends on getting along with other humans to some extent. Customs or rules for how to best treat each other are evident in even the most loosely defined communities.

In case you were wondering, the terms morals and ethics have similar origins; the word “morals” is derived from the Latin word, mores, which means manners, morals, or character.  The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word, ethos, which means character, or custom.

Although there is overlap in meaning, in general, morals and morality have become more closely associated with values and matters of conscience, while ethics has come to be more linked to the professional world. For example, professions have codes of ethics, but not codes of morals. Also, academically, ethics is the study of morality, much like political science is the study of politics, or theology is the study of religion. Thus, college courses in ethics are common, but you might do a double-take if you were required to take Morals 101—or even worse, Morals for Dummies. Then again, this might not be a bad idea.

Morality is the story of what it means to be fully human, realizing all that is good and true in human potential. Moral knowledge is essential for the healthy functioning of any community.

When you study to become a professional, you learn the skills of the trade. Dentists study medicine and then learn all about teeth. Teachers study their subject area and specific skills for teaching others. (Wouldn’t it be nice if political leaders were required to learn all about effective governance?) But beyond the skills, professionals also learn the ethics of their profession. That is, what is the best, highest, most effective way to use the knowledge that defines the profession? Usually, these ethical rules are determined by the professionals themselves, and express the heart of the professional endeavor and identity. There are codes of ethics for attorneys, architects, chemists, counselors, dentists, nurses, scientists, zoologists, engineers, and many more. Some argue that without a code of ethics, a profession has not yet fully come into being.

If professionals decide to ignore or violate their particular ethics code, they run the risk of being shunned, sanctioned, or removed from their profession. And I would argue that when basic morality is ignored or violated, a human has lost an essential aspect of what it means to be human.

Ah, but here’s the rub: How do we define what’s moral? What rules, guidelines, codes, or ways of being do we collectively endorse for the good of the community, and for the good of each individual?

Well, tune in next time. I’ll offer my own Bossypants-style summaries of how some very smart people have approached those questions. And in the meantime, feel free to consider how you, your very own self, might have come to believe whatever it is YOU believe about right, wrong, fulfillment, happiness, and the best ways to get along with each other.

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“I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity. “        Michelle Obama

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2 thoughts on “Ethics 101

  1. I’m looking forward to this series. For a long time I’ve been concerned by people in the news, oh let’s say politicians, reassuring us that what he/she did was legal. But I say, what about moral?

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