Ethics is a hard subject for me to explore and write about, and this is my first attempt at outlining, codifying, and stating my code of ethics. This hasn’t been an easy process for me, and I’m definitely outside my comfort zone when it comes to writing and talking about this. For this artice, I’m drawing off of material in a book I read last year titled, “Ethics for the Real World” by Howard and Korver. I’ll be outlining some of the key ideas in this book, what some of my thoughts are, where I stand on some of these issues, and also provide you with some interesting food for thought in creating your own code of ethics.
Ethics vs. Morals:
To begin, I want to make the distinction between ethics and morals. While they are similar, morals
refer to what is considered right and wrong by society, while ethics is more narrowly defined by the behaviors and actions considered right and wrong by our own beliefs, no matter the culture. In this case, we’re talking about ethics, not morals.
Some questions to consider: Can our ethics and moral overlap? How does the society we live in shape
our ethics? What would our ethics be like if we grew up in another culture?
Ethical Transgressions: Deception, Stealing, and
Howard and Korver argue that ethical (not moral) transgressions fall into 3 distinct categories: deception, stealing, and harming. While these 3 categories have many different names -fib, embroider, doctor, dupe, bend, cover up, misinform, stretch the truth, inflate, embellish, warp, spin, fake, con, perjure, dissemble, distort, theft, shoplifting, embezzlement, swindling, mooching, sneaking, lifting, hustling, etc – we can break down all ethical transgressions into these 3 categories.
Some questions to consider: Why do we have some many words for these transgressions? Is there a difference between a “white lie” and a regular lie? Are there any other ethical transgressions? Are there any times when it is ok to lie, steal or to cause harm?
Drawing Distinctions: Ethical, Legal, Prudential
Where I tend to get into trouble and muddle up my thinking is in drawing distinctions between what I perceive to be ethical issues. When framing an issue, there are 3 perspectives to consider: ethical, legal, and prudential. While these perspectives can and do overlap, it is best to view our actions through these 3 independent lenses to help you frame the issue. Legal issues pertain to actions within the law of society like speeding, assault, murder, etc. Our actions are considered right or wrong within the law, and our personal code of conduct is not taken into consideration. Prudential issues speak to our self interest. You can usually tell if an issue is prudential if you balance the pros and cons of the issue, however it does not separate right from wrong nor take into account if the action is legally right or wrong. Finally, ethical issues relate to the issues of deception, stealing, and
Some questions to consider: How can you frame the issue (ex. speeding) through the lenses of ethical, legal, and prudential? When can illegal acts be ethical? Why is there conflict between these lenses? Do you allow certain frames to override another if there is a conflict?
Action or Consequence Based Ethics:
This is the last issue that I’m going to touch on in this post. Action-based ethics is tied to the idea that our ethical responsibility is attached to our actions, regardless of the consequences. Consequence-based ethics is tied to the idea that our ethical responsibility is attached to the consequences, and our actions have to be judged accordingly. It is similar to the idea of utilitarianism or the greatest good for the greatest number.
Here’s where it starts to get tricky for me. Using the example of lying, if you are following Action-based ethics, you would never lie. But would you lie to prevent murder? It is ethical? Prudential? Legal? Under the Consequence-based ethics, the issue seems simpler. Under this philosophy, you would also never lie, however, if faced with the same issue of lying to prevent murder, you WOULD lie (or rather I would lie inthis case) as the consquences of lying is less than the
consequences of not lying.
As I’ve been wrestling with this issue, for me, ethics is more action based rather than consequence based. I believe we need to start off with the right intentions and therefore the right actions. Since I have the power to control my thoughts and actions, and our actions influence the consequences, Action-based ethics seem to fit in with my belief system. To expand, if certain actions lead to consequences beyond my control, should I let that infuence my actions retrospectively? I agree that there are times when Consequence-based ethics may over-rule (I would lie if I knew it would prevent murder), for the most part, I subscribe to the Action-based philosophy.
Some questions to consider: Do the ends justify the means? What if it’s “for a good cause”? How do you define “a good cause”? Are we not responsible for our actions, and therefore the direct consequences as a result of it? How does our reasoning or rationalization influence the decision making process?
Some key guiding principles for me:
Now that we’ve explored some issues relating to ethics (and there are still more to explore), I’m going to attempt to lay out some of the guiding principles for me in my code of ethics. As I continue to explore this issue, I suspect my views and opinions may change, but for the most part, these are principles I strive to live my life by.
#1. Apply the Golden Rule
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is one of my founding principles and something I take into consideration whenever I’m faced with a difficult issue.
I choose to live with honesty and without deception. I will make the choice to choose the hard right instead of the easier wrong and never be content with a half truth when the whole can and should be done. I will act in a way that doesn’t deceive anyone or allow anyone to be deceived (i.e. not doing anything that could be considered “sneaky”). I will act in a way where I would be satisfied if I were on the receiving end of the outcome.
I may make an exception to this principle if it would prevent harm to others (ex. lying to prevent
murder) where the harm of lying (to me and society) would be low compared to the harm to society. I’m not sure if there are other exceptions I would make to the principle of living with honesty, but this is a start and where I stand at this time.
I believe stealing is wrong. Even if it is easy and I won’t get caught, stealing from “rich people” or “big corporations” or if “everyone else is doing it”, I will not steal. To me, this issue is pretty clear. However, there is one issue that I’m not sure of – that is the issue of downloading.
Fundamentally, I believe downloading without paying for content is wrong. Despite this belief, my issue is this: what is the difference if I acquire the content through a different, legal channel such as borrowing the material from friends, the library, or visiting a bookstore? And with today’s technological advances, and using an example relevant in my case, what is the difference between logging in to my public library’s online catalogue to download and listen to an audio-book vs. downloading it from an “unauthorized” site? What about enjoying a music video on tv or on demand from youtube vs. downloading it from an “unauthorized” site? The content is the same, my actions are the same (use the internet to acquire the content), my enjoyment is the same – and from my perspective as an end-user, there is no real difference other than the details of which channel I use to get the material. I’m not sure where or how to draw the line.
Praticaly speaking, and as a general rule, I do not download as I do utilize the pubic library (and it’s online catalogue), the local bookstore, youtube, tv, and friends to enjoy this content through acceptable legal methods rather than rely on downloading from unauthorized sources. But with that being said, should I feel like I’m stealing if I download from an unauthorized source? Maybe there is a difference in terms of the other transactions going on behind the scenes that I’m not aware of – but I’m not sure. How do my actions affect the underlying industry structure? Either case, with the incessant march of technological advances, I can imagine the issue of downloading from unauthorized sources will change and may not even be an issue 5, 10 years from now.
I will aim to do no harm. However, one exceptions to my principle incluldes self defence, or defending others when they cannot defend themselves. Expanding on this in another direction, why role should I play in supporting sustainable organizations, supporting organizations who do not have a perfect track record for environmental sustainabililty, human rights, or public health?
These issues are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fleshing out my thoughts on ethics. Other issues to explore (maybe in a later post) incude reasoning vs. rationalizing, framing issues, refining my code of ethics, going through the decision making process, and applying our ethics in a variety of aspects of life. This process has opened up another layer of questions and ideas to consider, and as I continue to work on developing my code of ethics. I recognize and understand that I’m not perfect, but hopefully through this process, I will become better skilled at making these distinctions and thereby better ethical choices in the future.
To conclude, I want to leave you with this story (paraphrased from the book) as food for thought in how you frame an issue in determining if an issue is ethical or unethical.
There were two monks who loved to smoke and pray. They were concerned that their smoking habit was a sin so they went to their superior for guidance. The first monk went to the master and asked “Is it ok to smoke during evening prayers?” The master replied and said no. The next day, the first monk found his friend smoking away when he arrived. He protested, “But the master told me it was a sin”. The other monk looked at him and asked, “what did you ask the master?” The first monk replied, “I asked if it was all right to smoke during evening prayers and he said no”. “Well,” replied the second monk, “I asked if it was ok to pray during our evening smoke and he said it was just fine.”