Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Values

Values are individual beliefs that motivate people to act one way or another. They serve as a guide for human behavior.

Generally, people are predisposed to adopt the values that they are raised with. People also tend to believe that those values are “right” because they are the values of their particular culture.

Ethical decision-making often involves weighing values against each other and choosing which values to elevate. Conflicts can result when people have different values, leading to a clash of preferences and priorities.

Some values have intrinsic worth, such as love, truth, and freedom. Other values, such as ambition, responsibility, and courage, describe traits or behaviors that are instrumental as means to an end.

Still other values are considered sacred and are moral imperatives for those who believe in them. Sacred values will seldom be compromised because they are perceived as duties rather than as factors to be weighed in decision-making. For example, for some people, their nation’s flag may represent a sacred value. But for others, the flag may just be a piece of cloth.

So, whether values are sacred, have intrinsic worth, or are a means to an end, values vary among individuals and across cultures and time. However values are universally recognized as a driving force in ethical decision-making.

Continue Reading

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory says that people live together in society in accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behavior. Some people believe that if we live according to a social contract, we can live morally by our own choice and not because a divine being requires it.

Over the centuries, philosophers as far back as Socrates have tried to describe the ideal social contract, and to explain how existing social contracts have evolved. Philosopher Stuart Rachels suggests that morality is the set of rules governing behavior that rational people accept, on the condition that others accept them too.

Social contracts can be explicit, such as laws, or implicit, such as raising one’s hand in class to speak. The U.S. Constitution is often cited as an explicit example of part of America’s social contract.  It sets out what the government can and cannot do. People who choose to live in America agree to be governed by the moral and political obligations outlined in the Constitution’s social contract.

Indeed, regardless of whether social contracts are explicit or implicit, they provide a valuable framework for harmony in society.

Continue Reading

Prosocial Behavior

Prosocial behavior occurs when people act to benefit others rather than themselves. Altruism, cooperation, and caregiving are a few examples of prosocial behavior.

Prosocial behavior is a central part of morality. As social psychologist Daniel Batson notes, much of interpersonal morality involves “giving weight to the interests and desires of others in situations in which our interests and theirs conflict.”

Research reveals that those who act prosocially tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer. Those who don’t act prosocially tend to suffer the psychological cost that comes with guilt.

Prosocial behavior is contagious. Studies show that people who see others act prosocially are more likely to do so themselves.

People also seem to have an innate preference for prosocial behavior. For example, in one study, even babies preferred to play with a doll that they saw act in a helpful way over another doll that they saw act in a selfish way.

Law professor Lynn Stout observes, “unselfish prosocial behavior is so omnipresent in American society that it often goes unnoticed.” Indeed, consider how frequently people help each other, donate to charity, and volunteer. For example, in 2014 charitable giving reached an all time high with more than $358 billion in donations. And overall, 45% of Americans volunteer, making the United States third in the world for offering time and talents to help others.

So, while prosocial behavior may often go unnoticed, it can be argued that it is the cornerstone of a just and decent society.

Continue Reading

Morals

Morals are the prevailing standards of behavior that enable people to live cooperatively in groups. Moral refers to what societies sanction as right and acceptable.

Most people tend to act morally and follow societal guidelines. Morality often requires that people sacrifice their own short-term interests for the benefit of society. People or entities that are indifferent to right and wrong are considered amoral, while those who do evil acts are considered immoral.

While some moral principles seem to transcend time and culture, such as fairness, generally speaking, morality is not fixed. Morality describes the particular values of a specific group at a specific point in time. Historically, morality has been closely connected to religious traditions, but today its significance is equally important to the secular world. For example, businesses and government agencies have codes of ethics that employees are expected to follow.

Some philosophers make a distinction between morals and ethics. But many people use the terms morals and ethics interchangeably when talking about personal beliefs, actions, or principles. For example, it’s common to say, “My morals prevent me from cheating.” It’s also common to use ethics in this sentence instead.

So, morals are the principles that guide individual conduct within society. And, while morals may change over time, they remain the standards of behavior that we use to judge right and wrong.

Continue Reading

Moral Emotions

Emotions – that is to say feelings and intuitions – play a major role in most of the ethical decisions people make. Most people do not realize how much their emotions direct their moral choices. But experts think it is impossible to make any important moral judgments without emotions.

Inner-directed negative emotions like guilt, embarrassment, and shame often motivate people to act ethically.

Outer-directed negative emotions, on the other hand, aim to discipline or punish. For example, people often direct anger, disgust, or contempt at those who have acted unethically. This discourages others from behaving the same way.

Positive emotions like gratitude and admiration, which people may feel when they see another acting with compassion or kindness, can prompt people to help others.

Emotions evoked by suffering, such as sympathy and empathy, often lead people to act ethically toward others. Indeed, empathy is the central moral emotion that most commonly motivates prosocial activity such as altruism, cooperation, and generosity.

So, while we may believe that our moral decisions are influenced most by our philosophy or religious values, in truth our emotions play a significant role in our ethical decision-making.

Continue Reading

Ethics

The term ethics often describes the investigation and analysis of moral principles and dilemmas. Traditionally, philosophers and religious scholars have studied ethics. More recently, scholars from various disciplines have entered the field, creating new approaches to the study of ethics such as behavioral ethics and applied ethics.

The term ethics can also refer to rules or guidelines that establish what conduct is right and wrong for individuals and for groups. For example, codes of conduct express relevant ethical standards for professionals in many fields, such as medicine, law, journalism, and accounting.

Some philosophers make a distinction between ethics and morals. But many people use the terms ethics and morals interchangeably when talking about personal beliefs, actions, or principles. For example, it’s common to say, “My ethics prevent me from cheating.” It’s also common to use morals in this sentence instead.

So, whether we use the term ethics to refer to personal beliefs, or rules of conduct, or the study of moral philosophy, ethics provides a framework for understanding and interpreting right and wrong in society.

Continue Reading