• Reflective Resources

E is for Ethics

Updated: May 19, 2021

A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy,

education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.

Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of

punishment and hope of reward after death.” Albert Einstein

Ethics (or moral philosophy) is all about making choices, and about providing reasons why we should make these choices.

Philosophers usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas:

meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.

(For explanations of the different areas, see the link below)

I completed an online course a few years ago on the subject of ethics and as part of my assessment wrote the following essay entitled:

“Do we need reasons for acting ethically? If so, are there such reasons?”

These questions immediately raised further questions in my mind; primarily the ‘chicken and the egg’ type question: Is the reason we act ethically because we know that it makes us feel good about ourselves and will be beneficial to others, or is feeling good simply a by-product of ethical behaviour?

To live an ethical life means to act according to beliefs about what is morally right or wrong. By identifying ourselves with wider goals other than just self-interest we give meaning to our lives and a sense of identity as part of the wider picture. Acting ethically develops the ‘pay it forward’ idea of hope for a better world i.e. that by living an ethical life, it will inspire others to do the same and the society in which we live will change for the better.

Mahatma Gandhi sums this up concisely in his autobiography – The Story of My Experiments with Truth:

Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Behaviours are based on different beliefs and beliefs are shaped and held for a variety of reasons. Our environment and the different cultures we live in also affect our beliefs and reasoning. It also raises the question of genetics and its influence on how individuals respond to similar upbringings or environments. The ‘nature or nurture’ debate reaches far and wide. If we give this idea credence, then it becomes apparent that some people need external reasons and guidance whereas others (the majority?) don't.

There are a variety of reasons that cause us to act ethically. Our ‘own’ personal belief systems (imposed/handed down from our parents, school, church, culture etc) play a vital role in our decisions regarding behaviour. If we do something against those beliefs i.e. something we know is wrong but gives us ‘immediate gratification’ then we are likely to experience guilt and our body becomes stressed as we are not behaving according to our own conscience. To lead a successful, ethical life with a clear conscience, you need to be consistent in your actions whether someone is looking or not.

There are groups of people who can seemingly behave in an unethical manner and don't appear to have a guilty conscience about it. They may try and justify their actions by deciding that the ends justify the means or seek to rationalise their inconsistent behaviour, whilst others simply display an ‘I'm alright Jack' attitude, e.g. when they make financial/career gains at the expense of others. In these cases, although perhaps no outward signs may be visible, internally they are likely to be affected by heightened adrenaline and cortisol levels, which will in turn affect their general health even if they are not aware of it.

External reasons for acting ethically are imposed on us for our own good and the well-being of society as a whole e.g. through societal or cultural pressure. We do need reasons to act ethically in order for society to survive. Most would agree that we can usually serve ourselves better by upholding society’s values and laws, than we can by violating them. We use the law and punishment to coerce people who reject these ideals. Laws are required, and need to be upheld in order to maintain the fabric of society i.e. the classic paradox of freedom.

Social contract theories advocate moral behaviour because it promotes social cohesion and enables everyone in society to live better. They can differ in their aims; some aim to eliminate discrimination and protect individual rights whilst others try to promote individual liberty by limiting government intervention.

When we are part of a society, we usually want it to prosper so that gives us a reason to act in an ethical way. People are not really free to reject or opt out of society completely which raises the question, “Is it ethical to force someone to live a certain way because of a lack of alternatives?” To some extent this can be applied partially too eg , “Is it ethical not to make vegetarian options available for people especially in schools, hospitals, prisons etc?”

Different cultures hold different views regarding what is acceptable. This means that it is sometimes difficult to make absolute ethical judgments that hold true for all people and societies.

Descriptive cultural relativism is a term to describe when different cultures have different ethical standpoints, for example, with regard to polygamy or cannibalism.

Normative ethical relativism is when you follow what your culture or morality says ought to be done. Examples of this are the notions of slavery, honour killings and suttee (a practice in India in early British colonial days where if your husband dies women were put under pressure to be incinerated alongside their husbands!). It is clear that both ethical subjectivism and cultural relativism have serious weaknesses.

'Do unto others what you would have done unto you'. Every action has a consequence for us as individuals and to our relationships with others. If we are remaining true to ourselves and our beliefs, are we still being ethical if our behaviour goes against what is considered normally accepted behaviour?

Behaving ethically is a choice based on a conscious or subconscious reference to our innate moral codes. Sometimes this may result in individual choices that are different to what is expected by society or despite of what's been generally deemed as ethically or culturally right or wrong.

People usually have reasons for their ethical choices, so does it matter how we arrive at these ethical decisions? i.e. What ethics are our actions based upon?

Different ethical theories can either lead to different outcomes or alternatively produce the same end result but for different reasons, another reason why it is difficult to arrive at any ethical standpoints that are 100% objectively true. In order to make appropriate responses, we need to step back, put our biases aside, keep an open mind and look impartially and objectively at things from all viewpoints to see what is right in both the short term and long term for all concerned. It is also important to distance ourselves from what is ‘common practice’ and see whether what we are doing is intrinsically right in itself.

Different ethical theories suggest different explanations for why we ought to act ethically:

Utilitarianism, an outcome –based theory, looks to see whether the act or rule we follow will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. It states we have no individual rights and we should only look to encourage virtues that bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest amount of people.

Virtue theory seeks to encourage people to become as virtuous as they can, it doesn’t limit itself to using certain things if it will provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number (i.e. the end justifies the means). Virtue ethicists claim that we must cultivate moral character traits simply because they are necessary to be a virtuous person.

Deontology also sees morality as a set of rules, principles or duties, but it maintains that the right of an individual’s liberty or happiness has preference over the happiness of the greater number but says some acts can be wrong even if they do lead to the best consequences.

There are criticisms of all of the main theories about ethical living, so how do we chose which theory to apply to our own decision making especially if different theories have different outcomes?

Differences in ethical judgements are not just simple differences in taste; they are about important issues and affect society as a whole. They have an effect on how we treat each other and the environment and influence the culture we shape. We can also have reasons for acting in a certain way, which are not in themselves ethical though they may be consistent with what is ethical.

David Hume (1711–1776) says that reason is properly a 'slave to the passions' and our actions are influenced by emotions and empathy. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) believes that all rational human beings are compelled to show both ourselves and others unconditional respect. Kant sees duty as a motive and argues that moral law is designed to guide our conduct by reason and that we should act so that the essence or maxim of our actions can be applied to any identical real or hypothetical situation. A moral action, a categorical imperative, shouldn’t be based on any condition; I help or do good because I should, regardless of whether I get anything out of it (i.e. positive emotions,); the moral act is rational in and of itself. However, Kant also says that as a result of doing what’s right, it advances our quest for virtuousness and happiness. Hume considers duty as a second best motive.

If we need reasons for acting ethically, then it is important to have thought about and developed sound reasons to justify living an ethical life so we can defend our position and explain our reasoning to others in order to best explain our ideals. This does not of course preclude us continuing to being open to new standpoints.

A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy,

education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.

Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of

punishment and hope of reward after death.”

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) , "Religion and Science," New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930

In any democratic society it is important to engage with each other using dialogue that can reach across different religious teachings and appeal to believers and non-believers alike. We are often brought up from an early age being told what we should or shouldn’t do with the implicit threat of being punished or ostracised if we don’t do it as opposed to being given a genuine reason for why we should want to do 'the right thing'.

There always appears to be a reason for acting ethically even if the reason is 'just' peace of mind and lack of internal conflict or dissonance as it enables you to respect and be consistent with your own nature as an autonomous, rational being and relax.

Psychologists have shown that even when we rationalise unethical behaviour, guilt affects us physically and emotionally. The psychological term for this is ‘egosyntonic’, a term referring to when our actions, thoughts and feelings are in harmony with or acceptable to the needs and goals of our ego, or consistent with one's ideal self-image. The opposite to this is ‘egodystonic’ and refers to patterns of behaviours and thoughts where our actions are inconsistent with our values, needs or ideal self-image

We become happier and healthier when we act ethically. Happiness resides on a continuum, it is a lifelong pursuit. Aristotle and Plato saw leading a good (virtuous) life as a pre-requisite for happiness.

This reason for acting ethically is backed up by the field of Positive Psychology e.g. Aaron Antonovsky’s (1923-1994) concept of 'salutogenesis' (health/disease model – The origin of health), using neuroplasticity of the brain for positive reinforcement etc etc Assuming that we all want happiness, acting ethically is therefore another reason why doing so is in our own self-interest and that of society.

It is generally agreed that our personal happiness should not be at someone else’s expense. Everybody is entitled to homeostasis so life can work its ‘magic’. The term ‘Homeostasis’ was first defined by the French physiologist, Claude Bernard, in 1865. The idea of homeostasis originates with the Greek concepts of balance, harmony, equilibrium, and steady-state, all of them fundamental attributes of life and health. If you want that principle to be applied to you then you must apply it in order to have balance.

In answer to the original questions it is clear to me that at least some people do need reasons for acting ethically. Reasons for doing so are varied but all bring positive benefits to others or ourselves. It is right that we should reflect on those reasons and be able to engage with others to share our convictions in order to develop a stronger, healthier society.

C.S Lewis (1898 – 1963) in his book, Mere Christianity – Chapter 4 says, “There is one thing, and only one, in the whole universe, which we know more about than we could learn from external observation. That one thing is Man. We do not merely observe men, we are men. In this case we have, so to speak, inside information; we are in the know.”

Carl Rogers (1902 –1987) continues this idea, “What is most personal is most general.”

Maslow (1908 – 1970) develops this by saying, “We must remember that knowledge of one’s own deep nature is also simultaneously knowledge of human nature in general” ie the concept that when we understand ourselves better we are better able to identify with others.

Self knowledge is the source of empathy. If we have experienced pain or difficulty we wouldn’t want anyone else to do the same. Many see the inter-connectedness of all life so their own sense of ‘I’, diminishes and they act from ‘unconditional compassion’ and studies show that there is then less tendency to immoral behaviour towards others (racism etc)

With the original ‘chicken and the egg’ type question that was first raised, I think that this depends on our own personal level of self-awareness, possibly genetics – particularly with reference to self-discipline and the life we have experienced to date.

Finally ethics is not just about knowledge, it requires reflection and application of behavioural change ie self transformation and practical applications. SJB

Ethics and equity and the principles of justice do not change with the calendar

D H Lawrence

Some questions from the text to think about/or discuss below:

Do we need reasons for acting ethically? If so, are there such reasons? What do you think?

Is the reason we act ethically because we know that it makes us feel good about ourselves and will be beneficial to others?

Is feeling good simply a by-product of ethical behaviour?

Is it ethical to force someone to live a certain way because of a lack of alternatives?

If we are remaining true to ourselves and our beliefs, are we still being ethical if our behaviour goes against what is considered normally accepted behaviour?

What ethics are your actions based upon? How did you form your ethical ideas - consciously or have you 'inherited' them?

Ethics is nothing else than reverence for life”. Albert Schweitzer

If you are interested in some more reading on the subject, here are a few links to get you started:



Ethics definition from the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy


Positive psychology online OU course Tal Ben-Shahar

C S Lewis Mere Christianity Ch 4

36 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All