In Search of Ethics (ethikos) wrote,

When is one issue ethical, and the other not

What makes something an ethical issue and how does that differ from another issue that is not an ethical one?

I like the notion that to be ethical, one must neither harm anyone else, and one must not allow another to bear ones reasonable responsibility. I would like to compare and contrast that notion with a moral one. Morality pre-supposes a set of 'right and wrong' behaviors that don't always relate to physical or emotional harm. Additionally they often impose responsibilities over and above those I would identify as reasonable for all people.

I'd like to believe that an ethical choice, or an ethical violation, would be to violate some basic generalized principle in such a way that any human might agree that it is in such violation. Morality, clearly isn't exclusively tied to such general principles, although there is certainly a lot of overlap.

Many religions have formed models of behavior that delineate between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior. This categorization of behaviors forms the basis for the concepts of 'morality', or doing good as opposed to doing bad. If one accepts as truth the particular precepts of the logical underpinnings of such moralizing, it might be considered unethical to do what you believe to be wrong, even though it doesn't harm anyone, even though you are not making anyone bear your responsibility.

Since we live in Utah County, I'd like to choose three examples of behavior and identify the relevance or lack thereof to ethics.

This morning I'm enjoying a nice cup of coffee with my homework. I was once LDS, a religion that proscribes the drinking of such a beverage. At times the rationale for such denial is health, other times it is obedience. Drinking coffee cannot be an ethical issue, as clearly, not all people believe that it is wrong, it harms no one (other than one's self potentially-- is ignoring the debilitating effects of any behavior an ethical problem?)

Let's imagine that in addition to coffee, I also enjoyed a line of cocaine. Now, in addition to violating some religious moral issue, I'm also potentially violating the law. Is violation of the law an ethical issue? I think it isn't, unless that violation also is directly harming some other person. Again, I claim that I have the right to harm myself without being in violation of ethics, which I think requires infringing on another.

What if I shared some of this cocaine (or any other illegal substance) with the pretty girl in the next carrell. Here, to some point of view, I may be harming this person. But that presupposes a judgement about something that is not clear. If we were 15th century Incas, and we were using coca leaves as a part of our religious devotion, or if we were a doctor, administering relief to someone inflicted with severe headaches we might consider, or be considered performing a useful and non-ethically impaired function. I don't believe such issues are ethical. They may be moral issues, they may be legal issues, but that doesn't make them ethical issues.

The third situation I offer, is an obvious infraction of ethics. Let's say I poured a little coffee into the hot cocoa drink of that girl in the carrell next to me, when she wasn't looking. Let's further say that I fully believe that coffee is good for you, and have evidence to show it does something which I consider useful (let's say the poor girl is falling asleep, and I know she has a test in a half an hour, and she isn't studying because she keeps nodding off). If she runs to the bathroom, is it unethical of me to slip a little caffeine into her beverage? Of course it is. She is the one that gets to decide, not me, what is good and bad for her.
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