Open a newspaper or watch the news and it is difficult not to despair. Scandal pile upon scandal, lie piles upon lie. Cheaters and criminals are everywhere. From business to politics to sports, it seems to be the same story. Ethics is nowhere to be seen.
It would be mistaken, however, to think that what you read is typical of the world that you inhabit. The news, by its very nature, is misleading. The definition of newsworthiness is the extent to which it is outside the norm. The ordinary doesn’t make the papers; the different, the scary, the exceptional does. But since this is what we see and hear in the media, we take it as being typical, which, of course, it isn’t.
The fact is that most people, most of the time are decent and trustworthy. They do (or at least try) to do the right thing. Why is ethical behavior the norm rather than the exception? As a number of psychologists and philosophers have noted, human beings are ethical animals. It is in our very nature to engage in ethics.
This doesn’t mean that all people are good or that people are good all the time. What it does mean is that because we are social creatures — we are born into groups, are raised by others, and live our lives in relation to others — we make certain claims upon each other.
All of us live in a society, rub up against other people, move in a physical space, have needs and develop wants. Inevitably, we admire or disdain others; we praise them or blame them; we want to be around them or we want them to stay far away from us. It is impossible to live without thinking that “this” is better than that, this person “is admirable,” or that person “is despicable.”
This is what ethics is about: deciding that some things are better or worse than others, judging some things good and others bad, making claims against others, thinking some things fair and others unfair. You have reasons—or feelings—why something is right or wrong and why some things ought to be done or avoided.
It is impossible to live without engaging in such evaluations. We inevitably engage in such judgments and construct relationships that attempt to promote the good things that we admire and want to discourage and avoid those things that we believe are destructive. Such is the nature of ethical judgments—sorting out the desirable from the undesirable, the good from the bad, the right from the wrong.
We make evaluations about how we want to live and how we want other people to live in relation to us. We evaluate the larger world around us and prefer to live in one kind of world rather than another. These evaluations express our preferences about how life ought to be and how one ought to lead his or her life. This is the ethical domain, the area of valuing and choosing, appraising and judging.