Ethics

What is ‘ethics’ and when is it ‘global ethics’?

Suppose you overhear two parents arguing about a proposed new policy at their children’s school that would stop pupils from leaving school premises during lunch hour. One of them says:

Implementing this policy just would not be ethical.

Suppose now that the other parent is getting tired of this and replies:

You want to talk about ethics? Look, there are far more important ethical issues in the world to worry about! There are people dying from starvation or in leaky boats trying to find safety, and the entire planet is in danger from climate change. So, get some perspective and let’s move on.

The second parent mentions bigger global ethical issues in order to shock and to make the school case look trivial by comparison. Nevertheless, both parents are talking about ethical issues. Both statements are matters of ethics because they are about what people should or should not make happen, what people should or shouldn’t do, and why.

The ‘why’ is important, as an ethical judgement that something is wrong or bad – and therefore should be put right – needs some justification if it is to make sense and be persuasive. Plausible ethical judgements are made through a process of moral reasoning and in terms of things we value. (Note that in this course we use the terms ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ interchangeably.)

For example, in reaching the conclusion that the school policy is ‘unethical’, our first parent is perhaps thinking one or more of the following:

  • the policy would be against the best interests of students or staff
  • it would be detrimental to the running of a happy school
  • it would be unfair on staff or on some pupils who have arrangements or responsibilities outside school during the lunch hour
  • it would be harmful to pupils (because, for example, it could in some way adversely affect their social development)
  • school authorities simply have no right to stop students going anywhere during their ‘free’ time.

The statements in these bullet points are all reasons given for why something is unethical, and the terms in bold are ones often used in moral reasoning.

Ethical judgements are made in many other terms. For example, if we asked the second parent why their global examples are ethical issues they might talk about:

  • the duties we have to save lives or prevent suffering
  • the responsibilities people have for causing some of these problems, and thus for putting them right
  • everyone having certain basic rights to subsistence or to live without fear of death
  • the bad consequences for humankind of contributing to continuing climate change
  • what any decent, moral, virtuous person would do, within their power, to address these issues.

The list could go on, but these are a few examples of terms in what we might call an ethical vocabulary. This is all, broadly speaking, the stuff of ethics.

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This article is from the free online course:

Global Ethics: An Introduction

The Open University

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