Ethics or morality (these are the same thing) concern when actions are wrong, permissible (or not wrong) or obligatory (wrong to not do). These might seem like hard to define concepts, but we can remember these observations below to begin better understanding what we mean by them:
- Just because an action is illegal doesn’t mean it’s wrong, and just because an action is legal doesn’t mean it’s permissible. Ethics and the law are different.
- Just because a community approves of an action doesn’t mean it’s permissible, and just because a group of people disapproves of an action doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
- Just because an individual approves of an action or likes doing it (or it benefits themselves) doesn’t mean it’s permissible, and just because an individual disapproves of an action doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
- Although perhaps more controversially, even if there is a God, God’s saying an action is wrong doesn’t make that action wrong, it’s the reasons why God would say it’s wrong (e.g., if God says that kicking babies is wrong and that we shouldn’t kick babies, that’s because kicking babies is wrong: it hurts them and is disrespectful of them, and more). (Related: see "Moral Arguments and the Bible").
Often when people think of ethics, it’s controversial, much-disputed issues that come to mind. There are hard ethical issues, but there are also relatively easy issues, and we can use these issues to develop some general ideas about when actions are wrong, and when they are not wrong, that can help us better think about with harder issues. These general ideas or explanations are ethical theories.
To begin developing ethical theories, we can begin with this activity:
- Make a list of actions that you think are obviously and obviously and uncontroversially wrong, and that almost everyone would agree.
- Make a list of actions that you think are obviously and obviously and uncontroversially at least permissible, or just good actions, and that almost everyone would agree.
Take some time to develop these lists.
After you develop your lists, think about what explains the patterns of these lists. For simplicity, we can focus on the “wrong” list (although this is a bit depressing!).
The questions are these: why are the wrong actions on the “wrong” list? What is it about them that makes them belong on that list? And what makes the not wrong actions belong on the not wrong list?
Answers here are the basis of moral or ethical theories, which try to state, in general, why actions are wrong, or what makes wrong actions wrong, and the same about right actions.
Here are the basics of some influential theories:
- Consequentialism: wrong actions are actions that do not cause the best possible consequences for everyone affected by the action. What’s a bad consequence for someone? At least, pain, suffering and other types of harms and bad things for them, that makes the person worse off in some important way. So, consequentialists are apt to judge actions as wrong when the person doing the action could have done something else that produces better overall consequences.
- Rights theories: wrong actions are actions where someone’s rights have been violated, such as their right to life, the right to their body, their rights to make informed decisions about important matters about their lives and, in general, a right to be treated with respect, as a valuable person. To violate someone’s rights is often to “use them,” without regard to their input or preferences. Those who appeal to rights are apt to think that when anyone’s rights are violated, the action is likely wrong.
- “Golden rules”: wrong actions are ones where the person doing the action wouldn’t agree to that type of action being done to them. Advocates of the golden rule expect people to act in ways they want or are willing for others to act: that’s only fair.
- Judging actions behind the “Veil of Ignorance”: this idea is that if you wouldn’t agree to something being done if you didn’t know who you were, then that action is wrong. The imaginary perspective where you don’t know who you are is called being “behind the veil of ignorance.” So, for example, nobody would agree to racist laws if they didn’t know their own race, because they might wind up being victims of those racist laws. So this perspective sees wrong actions as ones that would be rejected if we eliminated any source of potentially self-serving bias. We can also interpret this idea as actions are wrong when they violate rules that we would all choose if we were setting up a society or creating a “social contract.”
- Justice: while “justice” sometimes seems like a nebulous, “who can judge?” sort of concern, it can be made concrete in a number of ways. First, something tends to be unjust when one group or individual benefits (without their agreement) at the expense of another, or when one group or individual is treated differently from others for no relevant, justifying reason: in other words, like groups and individuals must be treated like anyone else, unless there is a good reason to treat them differently, or else there is an injustice.
These are some of the most important general ideas about ethics, stated in very brief, underdeveloped ways (more developed, but still brief, versions of many of these are available here at 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology: in particular, you should read the essays on Consequentialism, Deontology: Kantian Ethics, Ubuntu: African ethics and John Rawls’ Theory of Justice: for each theory, how might it explain why the actions on your list of wrong actions are wrong?). Of course, they can and should be developed in greater detail and the various strengths and weaknesses of each, and combinations of views, identified.
But how do these ideas - these basic versions of common moral theories - seem to you? And how do they relate to your lists? How can they be related to, or applied to, any other ethical questions to try to figure out what’s wrong and what’s not wrong?