What is Ethics?

A Framework for Thinking Ethically

This document is designed as an introduction to thinking ethically. We

all have an image of our better selves-of how we are when we act

ethically or are “at our best.” We probably also have an image of what

an ethical community, an ethical business, an ethical government, or

an ethical society should be. Ethics really has to do with all these

levels-acting ethically as individuals, creating ethical organizations and

governments, and making our society as a whole ethical in the way it

treats everyone.

What is Ethics?

Simply stated, ethics refers to standards of behavior that tell us how

human beings ought to act in the many situations in which they find

themselves-as friends, parents, children, citizens, businesspeople,

teachers, professionals, and so on.

It is helpful to identify what ethics is NOT:

 Ethics is not the same as feelings. Feelings provide important

information for our ethical choices. Some people have highly

developed habits that make them feel bad when they do

something wrong, but many people feel good even though they

are doing something wrong. And often our feelings will tell us it

is uncomfortable to do the right thing if it is hard.

 Ethics is not religion. Many people are not religious, but ethics

applies to everyone. Most religions do advocate high ethical

standards but sometimes do not address all the types of

problems we face.

 Ethics is not following the law. A good system of law does

incorporate many ethical standards, but law can deviate from

what is ethical. Law can become ethically corrupt, as some

totalitarian regimes have made it. Law can be a function of

power alone and designed to serve the interests of narrow

groups. Law may have a difficult time designing or enforcing

standards in some important areas, and may be slow to address

new problems.

 Ethics is not following culturally accepted norms. Some cultures

are quite ethical, but others become corrupt -or blind to certain

ethical concerns (as the United States was to slavery before the

Civil War). “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not a

satisfactory ethical standard.

 Ethics is not science. Social and natural science can provide

important data to help us make better ethical choices. But

science alone does not tell us what we ought to do. Science may

provide an explanation for what humans are like. But ethics

provides reasons for how humans ought to act. And just

because something is scientifically or technologically possible, it

may not be ethical to do it.

Why Identifying Ethical Standards is Hard

There are two fundamental problems in identifying the ethical

standards we are to follow:

  1. On what do we base our ethical standards?
  2. How do those standards get applied to specific situations we face?

If our ethics are not based on feelings, religion, law, accepted social

practice, or science, what are they based on? Many philosophers and

ethicists have helped us answer this critical question. They have

suggested at least five different sources of ethical standards we should


Five Sources of Ethical Standards

The Utilitarian Approach

Some ethicists emphasize that the ethical action is the one that

provides the most good or does the least harm, or, to put it another

way, produces the greatest balance of good over harm. The ethical

corporate action, then, is the one that produces the greatest good and

does the least harm for all who are affected-customers, employees,

shareholders, the community, and the environment. Ethical warfare

balances the good achieved in ending terrorism with the harm done to

all parties through death, injuries, and destruction. The utilitarian

approach deals with consequences; it tries both to increase the good

done and to reduce the harm done.

The Rights Approach

Other philosophers and ethicists suggest that the ethical action is the

one that best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected.

This approach starts from the belief that humans have a dignity based

on their human nature per se or on their ability to choose freely what

they do with their lives. On the basis of such dignity, they have a right

to be treated as ends and not merely as means to other ends. The list

of moral rights -including the rights to make one’s own choices about

what kind of life to lead, to be told the truth, not to be injured, to a

degree of privacy, and so on-is widely debated; some now argue that

non-humans have rights, too. Also, it is often said that rights imply

duties-in particular, the duty to respect others’ rights.

The Fairness or Justice Approach

Aristotle and other Greek philosophers have contributed the idea that

all equals should be treated equally. Today we use this idea to say that

ethical actions treat all human beings equally-or if unequally, then fairly

based on some standard that is defensible. We pay people more based

on their harder work or the greater amount that they contribute to an

organization, and say that is fair. But there is a debate over CEO

salaries that are hundreds of times larger than the pay of others; many

ask whether the huge disparity is based on a defensible standard or

whether it is the result of an imbalance of power and hence is unfair.

The Common Good Approach

The Greek philosophers have also contributed the notion that life in

community is a good in itself and our actions should contribute to that

life. This approach suggests that the interlocking relationships of

society are the basis of ethical reasoning and that respect and

compassion for all others-especially the vulnerable-are requirements of

such reasoning. This approach also calls attention to the common

conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone. This may be a

system of laws, effective police and fire departments, health care, a

public educational system, or even public recreational areas.

The Virtue Approach

A very ancient approach to ethics is that ethical actions ought to be

consistent with certain ideal virtues that provide for the full

development of our humanity. These virtues are dispositions and habits

that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character

and on behalf of values like truth and beauty. Honesty, courage,

compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, fidelity, integrity, fairness,

self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues. Virtue ethics

asks of any action, “What kind of person will I become if I do this?” or

“Is this action consistent with my acting at my best?”

Putting the Approaches Together

Each of the approaches helps us determine what standards of behavior

can be considered ethical. There are still problems to be solved,


The first problem is that we may not agree on the content of some of

these specific approaches. We may not all agree to the same set of

human and civil rights.

We may not agree on what constitutes the common good. We may not

even agree on what is a good and what is a harm.

The second problem is that the different approaches may not all answer

the question “What is ethical?” in the same way. Nonetheless, each

approach gives us important information with which to determine what

is ethical in a particular circumstance. And much more often than not,

the different approaches do lead to similar answers.

Making Decisions

Making good ethical decisions requires a trained sensitivity to ethical

issues and a practiced method for exploring the ethical aspects of a

decision and weighing the considerations that should impact our choice

of a course of action. Having a method for ethical decision making is

absolutely essential. When practiced regularly, the method becomes so

familiar that we work through it automatically without consulting the

specific steps.

The more novel and difficult the ethical choice we face, the more we

need to rely on discussion and dialogue with others about the dilemma.

Only by careful exploration of the problem, aided by the insights and

different perspectives of others, can we make good ethical choices in

such situations.

We have found the following framework for ethical decision making a

useful method for exploring ethical dilemmas and identifying ethical

courses of action.

A Framework for Ethical Decision Making

Recognize an Ethical Issue

  1. Is there something wrong personally, interpersonally, or socially?

Could the conflict, the situation, or the decision be damaging to people

or to the community?

  1. Does the issue go beyond legal or institutional

concerns? What does it do to people, who have dignity, rights, and

hopes for a better life together?

Get the Facts

  1. What are the relevant facts of the case? What facts are unknown?
  2. What individuals and groups have an important stake in the

outcome? Do some have a greater stake because they have a special

need or because we have special obligations to them?


  1. What are the options for acting? Have all the relevant persons and

groups been consulted? If you showed your list of options to someone

you respect, what would that person say?

Evaluate Alternative Actions From Various Ethical Perspectives

  1. Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?

Utilitarian Approach: The ethical action is the one that will

produce the greatest balance of benefits over harms.

  1. Even if not everyone gets all they want, will everyone’s rights and

dignity still be respected?

Rights Approach: The ethical action is the one that most

dutifully respects the rights of all affected.

  1. Which option is fair to all stakeholders?

Fairness or Justice Approach: The ethical action is the one that

treats people equally, or if unequally, that treats people

proportionately and fairly.

  1. Which option would help all participate more fully in the life we share

as a family, community, society?

Common Good Approach: The ethical action is the one that

contributes most to the achievement of a quality common life


  1. Would you want to become the sort of person who acts this way

(e.g., a person of courage or compassion)?

Virtue Approach: The ethical action is the one that embodies the

habits and values of humans at their best.

Make a Decision and Test It

  1. Considering all these perspectives, which of the options is the right

or best thing to do?

  1. If you told someone you respect why you chose this option, what

would that person say? If you had to explain your decision on

television, would you be comfortable doing so?

Act, Then Reflect on the Decision Later

  1. Implement your decision. How did it turn out for all concerned? If

you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?


This framework for thinking ethically is the product of dialogue and

debate at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara

University. Primary contributors include Manuel Velasquez, Dennis

Moberg, Michael J. Meyer, Thomas Shanks, Margaret R. McLean, David

DeCosse, Claire André, and Kirk O. Hanson.





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