Ethics For Dummies
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Ethics is the study of the way things ought to be. Ethics applies to topics as mundane as doing your taxes and as momentous as how to structure government. Studying ethics can give you deep insights into what people do and why they do it. If you let it, studying ethics also can motivate you to change morally questionable habits and live an ethical life.

Why study ethics?

Ethics is a central component of any happy, healthy, and mature life. But some critics still question the value of studying ethics and living an ethical life. After all, if you ignore ethics, you can just focus on yourself, right? Not so fast. Some great reasons to resist those critics include the following:

  • Ethics allows you to live an authentic life. An authentic and meaningful life requires you to live with a sense of integrity. Integrity is making commitments and sticking to them through thick and thin, no matter how much violating them may benefit you. Having a firm character or set of principles to guide your life and the choices you make is what ethics is all about.

  • Ethics makes you more successful. You may think that ethics can hold you back in all kinds of ways, but the truth is the opposite. Ethical people embody traits that unethical people have to work at to fake — they’re honest, trustworthy, loyal, and caring. As a result, ethical people are perfectly suited not only for interpersonal relationships, generally, but also more specifically for the kinds of interactions that make for thriving business. Unethical people generally don’t do so well at these things.

  • Ethics allows you to cultivate inner peace. Lives that are lived ethically tend to be calmer, more focused, and more productive than those that are lived unethically. Most people can’t turn off their sympathy for other human beings. Hurting people leaves scars on both the giver and the receiver. As a result, unethical people have stormier internal lives because they have to work to suppress their consciences and sympathies to deal with the ways they treat others. When they fail to properly suppress their sympathies, the guilt and shame that comes with harming or disrespecting one’s fellow human beings takes deep root within them.

  • Ethics provides for a stable society. When people live ethical lives, they tell the truth, avoid harming others, and are generous. Working with such people is easy. On the other hand, callous and insensitive people are distrusted, so it’s difficult for them to be integrated well into social arrangements. A stable society requires a lot of ethical people working together in highly coordinated ways. If society were mostly composed of unethical people, it would quickly crumble.

  • Ethics may help out in the afterlife. Some religious traditions believe ethics is the key to something even greater than personal success and social stability: eternal life. No one can be sure about an eternal life, but people of faith from many different religions believe that good behavior in this life leads to rewards in the next life.

A snapshot of key ethical theories

Ethical theory serves as the foundation for ethical solutions to the difficult situations people encounter in life. In fact, for centuries, philosophers have come up with theoretical ways of telling right from wrong and for giving guidelines about how to live and act ethically. Here are a few ethical theories to whet your appetite:

  • Virtue ethics states that character matters above all else. Living an ethical life, or acting rightly, requires developing and demonstrating the virtues of courage, compassion, wisdom, and temperance. It also requires the avoidance of vices like greed, jealousy, and selfishness.

  • Utilitarianism holds that the amount of happiness and suffering created by a person’s actions is what really matters. Thus, acting rightly involves maximizing the amount of happiness and minimizing the amount of suffering around you. Sometimes you may even need to break some of the traditional moral rules to achieve such an outcome.

  • Kantianism emphasizes the principles behind actions rather than an action’s results. Acting rightly thus requires being motivated by proper universal principles that treat everyone with respect. When you’re motivated by the right principles, you overcome your animal instincts and act ethically.

  • Contract theory proposes thinking about ethics in terms of agreements between people. Doing the right thing means abiding by the agreements that the members of a rational society would choose. So for contract theorists, ethics isn’t necessarily about character, consequences, or principles.

  • Care ethics focuses ethical attention on relationships before other factors. As a result, acting rightly involves building, strengthening, and maintaining strong relationships. Acting rightly thus displays care for others and for the relationships of which they are a part. To care ethicists, relationships are fundamental to ethical thinking.

How ethical thinking applies to real life

Studying ethics can help you arrive at clearer positions and arguments on real life issues — and can help you apply them, too. In fact, thinking more about ethical theory may even change your mind about issues in today’s world. Here are some ways you can apply ethics to your life:

  • Consider how you interact with animals. Some folks may think animals don’t ethically matter. However, most ethical theories disagree. So before you abuse a dog, take a bite out of that next steak, or raise cattle inhumanely, you have to consider some ethical arguments. After all, animals feel pain and suffer just like humans. Perhaps this possibility of pain and suffering entitles them to rights and considerations that you’re ethically expected to respect.

  • Be kinder to the environment. People typically see recycling or using certain kinds of household products as neutral lifestyle choices. However, ethics may actually demand a particular sort of interaction with the world around you. Sawing down a tree is innocent enough, but when you think of trees as parts of ecosystems that keep humans alive, things become less clear-cut.

  • Respect and defend human rights. What are the basic things to which humans are entitled just because they’re humans? This question forms the basis of an inquiry into human rights. Ethics has a lot to say about what those rights are, who has them, and why. Many 21st century debates about torture, genocide, women’s rights, free speech, and welfare all focus on human rights

  • Become more ethical in your career. Ethical professionals are better professionals. Lawyers, engineers, doctors, accountants, and journalists must avoid conflicts of interest and be sensitive to the ethical requirements of their jobs. However, keep in mind that being ethical in your profession can lead to surprising results. Lawyers, for instance, have to defend some pretty shady characters in order to give everyone a fair defense.

  • Engage with medical advances. Some of the most contentious ethical problems of today arise in the practice of medicine and with the use of biotechnology. Human cloning, abortion, euthanasia, and genetic engineering challenge long-standing beliefs about human life, identity, and dignity.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Christopher Panza, PhD, is an associate professor of philosophy at Drury University and coauthor of Existentialism For Dummies.

Adam Potthast, PhD, is an assistant professor of philosophy at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

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