Am I Right?

How to live ethically

Why Ethics Is Hard

Thoughtful people of good will can honestly disagree about ethics

Thoughtful people of good will can honestly disagree about ethical issues. Ethics, after all, isn’t like math, in which there is no disagreement about the multiplication table. Ethics, while not completely objective, is far more complicated because so much depends upon the context in which the event takes place and the people who make the assessment.

Here are the reasons why ethics is simple as a generalization (lying is wrong, hurting is bad, etc.) but difficult in the particular:

Every time you confront a situation you have to decide on the facts of the case. (Is the person lying or telling the truth?)

Next you have to interpret the facts. (Did the person have cause to lie?) Then you have to fill in the gaps in the story with assumptions, if you can’t ask the protagonist directly. (Did the person mean to lie?)

On top of this you overlay our own set of values (How important is the matter?). Then you go about prizing one ethical principle over another. (How important is telling the truth? How important is it to avoid causing harm?)

This makes for at least eight variables (three ethical systems, facts, interpretation, assumptions, principles, and values) that you employ when you make an ethical decision. So, leaving aside psychological variations, such as temperament, a mathematician friend tells me that this mix of variables presents nearly 200 possible ways in which people of good will and hard thought can disagree with one another over moral matters. (Those mathematically inclined may want to correct this figure, if it is inaccurate.)

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For some, ethics is a matter of conscience or feelings, beyond reason. For others, ethics is a rationally determined and feelings are impediments to good judgment. The reality is that ethics cannot be totally divorced from psychological, cultural, political and social realities, even when rationality is the preferred methodology.

The lives you lead, the meanings you attribute to them and the manner in which you experience them are more complicated than any unitary theory can contain. This is why ethics requires more than one approach and why, while seemingly simple on the surface, is often difficult (but no impossible) to determine.

No one is a perfect type or singly motivated. You may be inconsistent or contradictory. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” And Walt Whitman exclaimed, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

But most of us also lean in one direction or another. Who knows, you may even be born with such proclivities. Recent studies involving twins and triplets separated at birth indicate that their likes and dislikes are far closer to that of their biological siblings than to that of their adoptive families. Perhaps the same is true about preferences in going about making ethical decisions.

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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