Ethics is hard because it requires thinking

Ethical problems are often complicated and require more than a formula to solve. The proper resolution of ethical problems requires judgment and good decision-making.

To understand the nature of ethics, let us consider the following scenario. Take a typical morning where you wake up to begin your weekday. You wash, brush your teeth, have breakfast, listen to or read the news, then set off for work. You probably gave little thought about any of these actions, if you thought about them at all. For example, you walked from your bed without thinking about which foot to put in front of the other or whether to turn right or left on your way. You didn’t have to make up your mind as to which brand of toothpaste to use; you grabbed what was there. Nor did you think of whether to brush up-and-down or sideways. Perhaps you gave some thought to whether you would have coffee or tea, but probably none as to whether you would put your food on a plate or in a bowl. While there is a plethora of sources for daily news, yours, in all likelihood, came from the same source today as the day before.

Even before you leave the house, you have taken many actions, although few were decisions. They were routines, habits, unthinking responses to the environment. Habits are behaviors that are done on a subconscious level. Some of your behavior was once a choice: this beverage, that brand of toothpaste. The choices reflect personal preferences. Other habits emerge from your upbringing and your culture. You never decided that eating with utensils was better than chopsticks or hands.

In many ways, many of our decisions are unreflective, nearly unconscious and pre-packaged. (In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls this kind of thinking System 1.) No matter. Most have little impact on other people and therefore are not in the realm of ethics. And if your habits satisfy your needs and meet your desires, then they are fine. Some of what you routinely do, though, had a moral dimension, which you may or may not have recognized at the time you first expressed your preference. Does the toothpaste manufacturer provide adequate wages to its workers; did the farmers who picked the beans for your coffee receive a fair wage; does the means of transportation you take to work harm the environment?

Let’s take a look at where your actions are judged as being good or bad. In places governed by strong social customs, someone is good because a social norm is followed. For example, a good wife takes care of household chores properly; a good farmer properly tends to the field; and a good silversmith makes beautiful jewelry. A good person performs sacrifices to the ancestors and fulfills religious and social requirements. Similarly, a good child carefully observes what it means to be a good adult and undergoes traditional rites of passage into adulthood. A good person, then, carries out the roles laid out by the group, the tribe, the religious tradition, and the laws.

In many places, the word “good” mainly refers to the fulfillment of roles and set duties. Little discretion is permitted. In fact, that which deviates from the norm is what is meant by “bad.” Good is conforming to social conventions. The word is still used in this sense today. For example, a good child listens. A good pilot is one who knows how to fly a plane well. It is what you probably mean when you say “good dog”; that is, the dog did what you told it to do. Even inanimate objects can be “good”; a good car is one that does what you expect of it.

But children aren’t dogs, adults are more than their roles, and a good pilot may be a very bad person. So, too, a good businessperson is more than one who simply follows the rules. What distinguishes the moral sense of good from other meanings of the word is that ethics implies judgment. Ethics is more than conformity and compliance. When there is a conflict between self-interest and the common good or when there is a conflict between two or more moral values, there must be judgment. Without informed judgment there is no ethics.

Some are tempted to say, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Don’t bother me with all this thinking.” While thinking can be a burden, (also explained by Kahneman; he calls System 2, the reasoning part of the brain ‘lazy’) avoiding ethical choices can be even more of a burden. If you follow social convention but the conventions themselves are morally questionable, you make the world a worse place. If you can’t distinguish between self-interest and the common good, you will either unwittingly harm yourself or others.

The nature of the choices we make in our daily habits are often individual and minor and have little to do with business ethics, but they are continuous with the rest of your decisions. Of course, you might object that choosing toothpaste isn’t the same as choosing the moral thing. True enough. Which toothpaste to put on your brush is largely a personal and somewhat trivial matter.

But thinking about morality exists on a continuum, and when you understand the nature of ethics in your daily routines, you are better able to conceptualize the ethical problems you face in your personal or work life.





9 thoughts on “Ethics is hard because it requires thinking

  1. Respectfully, you left out a word: courage. At a workplace lunch table, 5 folks were echoing the simplistic arguments one might hear from Glen Beck, et al. I simply stated that politics & religion were outside the bounds of conversation for me. I had to use an ounce of courage to say that. If instead I decided to express something I heard on NPR countering what was being affirmed then I would’ve used several more ounces of courage as I’m sure they would bounce back with another argument, thus ending any friendship we might possibly share. Sometimes it’s just best to not share an opinion esp. when the opinion is based more on trust than logic; I’m more inclined to trust what I hear on NPR than FOX News. I don’t know that I could adequately explain my “liberal bias.” Is it wrong to not share a point of view because one wants to maintain good relationships? I personally don’t think so.

    • Sometimes prudence is the better part of courage. Why beat your head against a wall, if that’s what you’re up against. But I wonder if there is a way to engage in some conversation that is respectful. If it is a matter of trying to convince them of your point of view, it’s useless. If it is to try to better understand why they believe what they do, that’s a different matter.
      Courage is part of ethics. Aristotle thought so. I do, too. It is called having the courage of your convictions. And sometimes it takes courage to just shut up.

  2. Great post–“without informed *judgement* there is no ethics.” I’ve been thinking about simplistic thinking a lot in the age of facebook. As we typically include in our friendship circles people whose world-orientation is similar to our own, I find the what FB does is amplify simplistic thinking, even amongst progressives who pride themselves on deeper thought and openness. For example, the Planned Parenthood case. When the story broke, like wildfire most “liberals” took up the war chant and reposted and reposted about the evils of Komen and the wonderful things PP is doing. Surely, there is more nuance to the story, even though I disagree largely with Komen’s decision–PP, like all organizations, is not divine. There was that fiasco of a donor asking to make sure his money was used to prevent black babies from coming into the world. Abortion itself is not an act to be celebrated. Anyway, just one example I think of knee-jerk reaction–a “good liberal” supports pro-life organizations. Period.

  3. Arthur – Perhaps you can help me with the following question which your post raises. I am an attorney, and in New York attorneys are governed by rules of professional conduct, which purport to be ethical rules. As I understand your post, these rules cannot be “ethical” in the sense that they are, in reality, a set of binding rules which define the behavior of a “good” attorney in the sense that an attorney should do as requried by the rules as far as those rules go. They perhaps are intended, in theory, to reach the “good” that would required by informed judgment in the majority of those cases in which they are operative, but they may, in fact, not actually get there in some or many cases. Thus they are in the “good dog” category some of the time, at least. Do I have this right?

    In practice, these rules can lead to a diminished sense of ethics, as attorneys worry only whether they are in violation of an ethical rule (and therefore can get in trouble), and not whether they are doing something that is unethical in an absolute sense. Perhaps in the real world that is the best that we can hope for. However, acknowledgment of this problem could lead to a better set of rules. Thanks for your consideration.

    • When ethics is defined as compliance many take this to mean that anything that is not included in the code must be OK. Well, it is OK within the law but it may not be ethical. Compliance really should be seen as the minimum, but in reality it is often seen the other way round. As long as it doesn’t violate the law, then it is viewed as acceptable.
      I know of only one study regarding law students. It shows that their ethical judgments (as measured on a standardized test known as the Defining Issues Test) deteriorates over the three years. Their are two possible explanations and they both may be right: students start out idealistic but learn that idealism and justice have little to do with law and its practice and therefore become disillusioned and cynical; ethics is presented as learning the codes of ethics and therefore confuse compliance with ethics.
      I hope this helps.

      • Thanks for your response. If there is statistically significant deterioration in ethical judgment during law school, I shudder to think of what the results would be after years in practice. In seriousness, I would guess that your second explanation is more likely to be correct, and that the phenomenon is a byproduct of legal training. Ethical reasoning seems to require objective and abstract reasoning which cannot rely on routine conclusions, while legal thinking requires constant return to a precedential rule, from which deviation must be justified.

  4. Pingback: Why do Humanists Value Reason? | Humanist Association of Ghana

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