On Ethics

We are often plagued by that “Is it wrong?” question. It’s the human nature to be inquisitive about the ethics of things. It’s uncertain if that is something that we were born with or if it was acquired along the way, enforced, for example, by religion.

Rarely we find a definite answer to a moral dilemmas, however. We tend to think that there is a ‘yes or no’ solution to everything, when problems can be so complex that can only be tackled in very specific conditions.

Just as an example: should you save person A or B from drowning? What if A was you son, and B a complete stranger? See how the problem changes shape, just by adding more information. For some people, it falls under a completely different algorithm while for others, nothing changes.

This is applied ethics, asking specific questions to the purpose of determining a policy or a decision in real life. If this was an easy task the world would not be so troubled. In fact, in the heart of every major conflict lies an ethical ambiguity, a problem that at least on the surface seems to have more than one acceptable solution.

But don’t be tempted to think that the answer to all ethical dillemmas is to ensure conformity. Many practical disasters have come from attempting this, including the Second Great War. There are two separate movements in society, one leading to conformity and other to dissidence of opinions. Somehow, the balance of these opposing forces reaches an end result that is society itself.

This affects ethical decisions because our own decisions are based by the mainstream views of the society, its values and beliefs. If my entire family bans abortion, for example, it is lot more unlikely for me to support it.

It’s important to know that although there are little definite answers, much work has been done in thinking about the most common ethical dilemmas. This material should be used to guide the most difficult decisions.

There are many schools of ethics, some that favor the balance such as the Stoicism, other more pragmatic as the Utilitarism. Simply knowing what they are about is a enough to allow you to use them in a rudimentary way, and leads to a better justified position. One needs to draw the line about using them and embracing them as life styles, though.

In very simple terms: Stoicism is inside the moral absolutism (ie murder is always wrong) and anything outside can’t be judged; In Hedonism, right is what gives pleasure (bound to have a fan or two); To Epicureans, enduring pain makes it right; Consequentialist states that one must compute the pros/cons of a moral action; Utilitarism chooses something to maximize, say welfare, and defines right accordingly; Deontological ethics look beyond consequences, and find right in the actions taken.

I’ve found with years that one should navigate between these views, none of them alone is enough to face every decision. One needs to see how arbitrary a solution to a problem is, if only to be more willing to listen to another opinion. If the purpose is not debating, but to reach a consensus, one will find Consequentialism an useful tool.

On top of that, one has to process these ethical considerations with his religious belief system. For some people religion takes precedence, and for other is the logical approach. It’s a wonder we can reach any decision at all.

[IMAGE: Plato and Aristotle in ‘The School of Athens’, by Raphael Sanzio. image source]


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