By Bill Frayer

Ethical Thinking in the Real World


If you’ve been reading this column, you will recall that I have been examining various frameworks of ethical thinking by looking at how we might respond to hypothetical ethical dilemmas. Dilemmas are good for discussing ethics because they give us very limited examples to discuss. The problem with ethical dilemmas is that they are not always of the real world. In practice, our application of ethics is a good deal messier.

The most prominent enemy of ethics is always self-interest. We are always tempted to behave in ways which may be good for us, even if our actions might be considered unethical. People cheat on their taxes, conduct illicit affairs, lie to their friends, cheat on exams, and go along with policies they may consider unethical to preserve their jobs. When I presented an ethical dilemma in my class one day, I asked what the correct decision should be. An honest student raised his hand,” Mr. Frayer, do you want to know what is the ethical choice, or do you want to know what we would really do?” I thought they ought to be the same, but he was honest enough to point out the obvious.

Is it an unrealistic ideal to expect people to consider their choices from an ethical perspective, even if it conflicts with their self-interest? We can make a case that self-interest often trumps ethics, yet having a code of ethics is considered important in many professions. Medicine, law, education, psychotherapy, and business all have published codes of ethics.

Some believe that the primary institutions which promote ethics are our churches. After all, the Ten Commandments were one of the earliest codes of conduct. For centuries, people have looked to religion as a basis for moral conduct. I’m not sure this has ever been true, but it certainly does not seem so today. The Catholic Church has been protecting pedophiles for decades. Some evangelical Protestant pastors preach intolerance and hate towards gay and lesbian people. Radical Muslims condone the killing of innocents in the name of Allah. This list goes on. Yet, religious organizations also feed the hungry, build houses for the poor, give shelter to the homeless, and fund welfare organizations, all in the pursuit of a more ethical world.

Many people see the problems we face today as a basic deterioration of common ethical standards. This has been attributed to the rise of modernity itself with its heavy reliance on technology, the emergence of wealth as a strong moral value, the increased ethnic diversity in all areas of civilization, and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. It often seems as if self-interest is our primary motivation.

Yet, most of us value ethics on a personal level. We try to behave following an ethical framework. Colleges, universities, and professional schools teach courses in ethics. As a society, we value ethical thinking. Many are critical of “ethical relativism” or “situational ethics” which, many think, undermine a strong ethical framework.

So where does this leave us? We can’t always agree on which ethical principles are the most important. Is individual autonomy more important than compassion? Is following the law more important than following higher humanitarian principles? It’s important, for us and for future generations, to continue the conversation. If we don’t insist on ethical behavior, then we are devaluing ourselves as a civilization.

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