Ethics are rules for behavior, based on beliefs about how things should be. Ethical statements involve: (1) assumptions about humans and their capacities; (2) logical rules extending from these assumptions; and (3) notions of what is good and desirable. Ethical systems (sets of rules for acceptable behavior) concern the “shoulds” and “should nots” of life, the principles and values on which human relations are based. The assessment of whether a behavior is ethical is divided into four categories, or domains: consequences, actions, character, and motive. In the domain of consequences, a behavior is determined to be “right” or “wrong” based on the results of the action, whereas the domain of actions looks only at the act itself. The domain of character looks at whether a person’s overall character is ethical; a person who is deemed as “virtuous” has consistently ethical behavior. The motive domain evaluates a person’s intentions, regardless of the consequences. It considers whether the person intended to do good, even if the result was bad.
A behavior may be deemed “ethical” according to one domain of assessment, but appear “un- ethical” according to another. For example, a poor person steals a small amount of food to feed her starving child from a wealthy, well-fed person who does not even notice that the food is missing. This act would be considered ethical in the domain of consequences, since the child can be fed, and motive, since the person is caring for her child, but unethical in the domain of actions, because stealing in itself is wrong. The poor person’s general behavior would have to be evaluated to determine whether she is ethical in the domain of character.
Ethics can also be divided into two main schools, absolutism and relativism. Absolutists believe that ethical rules are fixed standards (for example, stealing is always wrong, no matter what the circumstances). Relativists, on the other hand, believe that all ethics are subject to context (for example, stealing may be wrong in certain circumstances but not in others). Few people are actually pure absolutists or pure relativists, but rather fall somewhere along the spectrum between the two extremes, tending towards one or the other. Most who tend towards absolutism will allow for special circumstances and bend the rules on occasion, while those who tend to- wards relativism will admit to some universal standards that form a “bottom line” of behavior.
In order to develop ethical maturity, people must have moral awareness and moral agency (or autonomy). Moral awareness is the ability to recognize the ethical element of a given situation. For some, eating beef is simply an act of appetite and habit, with no thought given to its ethical implications. For others, whether to eat beef is a complicated moral question involving the ethics of land use (grazing cattle vs. growing food crops), conservation (the destruction of rainforests to increase grazing grounds), and the global economy (the transformation of underdeveloped countries into cattle farms for Western industrialized nations). Moral agency or autonomy means the freedom to choose between alternative behaviors. A person cannot develop ethical maturity without being able to choose from alternatives. Without moral awareness and moral agency, ethics become meaningless because behaviors are simply automatic, or forced.
Ethical maturity involves accepting full responsibility for one’s ethical choices and their consequences. An ethically mature person obeys her or his own, inner authority (or conscience), rather than an outside authority figure. Moving from the infantile state of externally determined obedience to the mature state of self-determination is a long and difficult process.
(Author is Research scholar in Sociology)