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When asking people “what does ethics mean? ” we get many different replies. Some relate ethics to feelings, others relate it to religion, others might relate it to the law, others relate it to society and some just do not know. They are all wrong. Ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong. Feelings, religion and the law may misguide people from what is ethical. The majority of people misunderstand what being ethical means. Some think that being ethical means following the law. The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe.
But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Our own pre-Civil War slavery laws and the old apartheid laws of present-day South Africa are grotesquely obvious examples of laws that deviate from what is ethical. Adela Cortina (March, 2000) said, “A natural law standpoint which, whether in its traditional or ‘post traditional’ version, ultimately takes only what is just from a certain moral conception as ‘valid law’, is not an acceptable basis for legal legislation in a morally pluralist society. ”
Nor should one identify ethics with religion. Most religions, of course, advocate high ethical standards. Yet if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics applies as much to the behavior of the atheist as to that of the devout religious person. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behavior. Ethics, however, cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion. Praveen Parboteeah, Martin Hoegl and John B.
Cullen (June, 2008) mention “some studies have found no difference between religious and non religious individuals on unethical behaviors such as dishonesty and cheating. Many people tend to equate ethics with their feelings, but being ethical is clearly not a matter of following one’s feelings. A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing what is right. Feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical. Just like Ken Bowen (August, 1994) said, “With a set of rules guilt is all too often a conflict between what is said to be wrong and what one feels to be right and can be devastating to an individuals personality.
” What, then, is ethics? Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to those standards that impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud. Ethical standards also include those that enjoin virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty.
And, ethical standards include standards relating to rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury, and the right to privacy. Such standards are adequate standards of ethics because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons. Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one’s ethical standards. As mentioned above, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one’s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded.
Ethics also means, then, the continuous effort of studying our own moral beliefs and our moral conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based. Most people do not really know what the meaning of ethics is. They all have a different idea of it. They relate it to things like religion, law and feelings. Well these usually deviate us from what is right and wrong. That is not all there is to ethics. Ethics has to do with standards of right and wrong. They may change through time. One must always examine one’s standards.