In Trump’s America, some Americans are arguing that Trump poses a threat to the country’s ethical norms. As a result, debates have flared up concerning conflicting ethical values. But rather than to fall into a partisan debate, I believe it’s necessary to once again define one’s own ethics. This definition by no means is all-encompassing, but, it should foster a healthy conversation about what ethics means to you.
When most people are asked to describe their ethics, they tend to orient themselves based on their sense of what society perceives as right or wrong. However, in doing this, they fail to realize that these rules of conducts are based on whether they’re perceived as acceptable to society, not themselves.
Nonetheless, over the years, these societal norms are imprinted into our minds, whether it be at school, church, or even at home. Given that these ethical norms are fixed in our minds in almost all social settings, one would believe that ethical norms are all universal. However, if ethics were truly collective, then why do ethical conflicts happen all the time?
With this in mind, the only possible explanation for those conflicts can be attributed to the ambiguous nature of ethics. Although most people recognize some universal morals, there are as many interpretations of ethics as there are stars in the sky. For this reason, ethics can truly only be described as an individual’s fundamental principles that govern their behavior. Since you lose liberty if you let others define your own ethics, it is of extreme importance that you distinguish between what you feel is righteous or not.
Societies tend to imprint upon individuals moral principles that the majority see as absolutely necessary for the well-being of the state; ethics thus serves to protect basic societal interests. For example, a nation that enforces law and order would stress stealing as unacceptable for its public to commit. Hence, that fundamental principle would have a major influence on their individuals’ behavior. During a war, however, a general might deviate from this societal norm by stealing national secrets as a part of that same nation’s security efforts.
Notably, rather than following that moral, the general prioritized a different standard: defending his nation’s security. It is conflicting principles such as those shown above that cause ethical thought to be unique to every individual.
According to the United Nations, classical ethical thought is, “. . . intricately connected to the capabilities necessary for leading a decent human life and, thus, to the vulnerabilities against which people must be protected. They constitute the moral values that moral reasoning aims to defend, e.g. by framing fundamental principles that serve to guide our moral interaction and to protect basic moral interests (Árnason, Vilhjálmur, et al. 4).”
However, because everyone has their own personal basic interests, an established system of ethics cannot defend every individual from essential vulnerabilities. Furthermore, every individual also has a different idea on how to lead a decent human life. Culture, social structures, and religion also further complicate the impression that ethics are shared values.
In order to define one’s own ethics, it’s necessary to analyze how your values are intertwined with your own interests as well as others and how they may be undermined and how they may be advanced. When it comes to lying, there will be lots of people saying that lying is never morally justified. At the same time, they feel entitled to protect their own interests and their loved ones. Under those circumstances, without a doubt, some of these same people would lie.
In one instance, one individual might lie to his girlfriend about how she looks in her dress simply because they’re late to wherever they’re attending and he frankly values being on time more than his girlfriend’s appearance. On the other hand, another individual might avoid lying in that situation, however, he would lie to immigration services in order to safely ensure that his brother escapes poverty and is granted a visa.
Although the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims that ethics can be “systematically defined,” those exemplars show that even within the followers of certain ethical systems, there will be some individuals that will have different interpretations of certain morals (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Consequently, to define the boundaries of your ethics, it becomes necessary to assess which model you value more during an internal ethical conflict.
Some, on the contrary, might claim that in the above example, both of the individuals lied and their action was the same so ethics really is a shared mindset, not that of an individual. Although they did both ultimately lie, one’s ethics is largely shaped by one’s personal experiences and thus these experiences greatly govern future behavior for that individual.
In that example, both of their actions were inspired by different situations where different individual values were compared. Aristotle once argued on ethics, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them (SparkNotes Editor).” This quote supports the idea that these fundamental principles that govern our behavior are really only established as we conduct ourselves in a manner that we ourselves, not society find acceptable.
Certainly, the ambiguous nature of ethics can be clearly demonstrated when it comes to the topic of an abortion. While most people would agree that murder is immoral, one individual could see an abortion as immoral because the developing embryo’s life is being terminated while another individual sees an abortion as a fundamental right redeemable by women. Although societally, a good majority see abortions as justified, some religious groups, guided by definite absolutistic guidelines such as the Ten Commandments might beg to argue that the practice of an abortion is ethically wrong. It’s then up to the individual to morally analyze what fundamental principle they value more: life or choice.
For the most part, it’s up to the individual to decide whether they believe lying or abortions can be morally justified. However, the individual does not have the option to allow the rest of society define every one of their values. If you can no longer distinguish between societal norms and what you value as your basic moral interests, then you have acquiesced a considerable amount of choice when it comes to moral analysis.
If you can’t define your ethics, it only becomes harder to choose what principle you value more during an ethical conflict and as a result, you’ve lost the ability to govern your own behavior. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to define their own ethical beliefs and personally respect the principles that govern the individuals around them. By associating ethics with that of an individual, a more practical approach could be advanced upon ethical conflicts; an approach that doesn’t involve name-calling or attacking the character of your opponent.
Finally, attempting conflict resolution can now become easier if you’re sure to conduct a moral analysis of how you act before you attempt to solve any ethical problems.
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNotes on Nicomachean Ethics.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC.
- Web. 25 Aug. 2016.
Árnason, Vilhjálmur, et al. “FAO Ethical Series.” Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations. FAO, 2005. Web. 27 Aug. 2016.
“Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 25