On Ethics

foundation pic

Good morning! I am taking an ethics course this semester for my master’s degree. One of our assignments is to consider three ethical decisions we’ve encountered over the course of the semester and follow a decision-making model to resolve the issues. My professor is amazing and provides all sorts of resources for us to read through. One such article makes a point to discuss what ethics is not. The article explains that ethics is not religion, feelings, adhering to laws, cultural norms or science. Many of these spheres have ethics built in or help us to understand what happens to be ethical but are not, in and of themselves, ethics.

From here, the article asks two main questions.

1. What, then, do we base our standards of ethics?

2. How can we apply these ethical standards to the various situations we encounter?

The answer given stems from five different approaches to discovering ethical standards — the Utilitarian Approach, Rights Approach, Fairness or Justice Approach, Common Good Approach, and Virtue Approach.  Most of these approaches’ foundation lies at the “common good”. However, even after these processes are defined, we find ourselves disagreeing about what exactly is good for all? What is the common good?  To which rights are we all entitled as humans?  The authors understands and asks these questions as well but gives the solution that each approach offers information about how to arrive at an ethical conclusion for each different situation faced.

My question is that no matter which approach we take, how do we find a foundation on which to stand, if not religion, adherence to the law, or cultural norms? Without some foundation it’s all relative. These approaches cannot stand alone. Take, for example, the Virtue Approach:

The Virtue Approach A very ancient approach to ethics is that ethical actions ought to be consistent with certain ideal virtues that provide for the full development of our humanity. These virtues are dispositions and habits that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character and on behalf of values like truth and beauty. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues. Virtue ethics asks of any action, “What kind of person will I become if I do this?” or “Is this action consistent with my acting at my best?”

How can a person even arrive at an understanding of virtue without some foundation? What is love? What is truth? Or how do we even know to value generosity, fidelity or fairness? Ethics change from person to person based on our foundation of authority. For instance, I value the Holy Bible as an authority on ethical standards. It affects my ethical decision-making process and causes my standards or right and wrong to vary from those who do not consider God as an authority for ethical standards. I would even go so far as to say that the Bible outlines its own process for ethical decision-making. That, however, is another post!

Merriam Webster defines “ethics” as “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad” and “an area of study that deals with ideas about what is good and bad behavior : a branch of philosophy dealing with what is morally right or wrong”.

We cannot determine what is morally good or bad without some foundation. A process or approach to determine a solution to an ethical dilemma, devoid of foundation or authority, falls short and is lifeless.  I agree with the authors that religion is not ethics but without religion (or whatever various authority for right and wrong you may have), ethics, in and of itself, cannot exist. A house cannot exist without a foundation.

If you’ve made it this far in my post, thanks for sticking with me!  I’d love to hear your thoughts or comments. I’m definitely just in the beginning stages of processing through this.


Velasquez, Manuel; Moberg, Dennis; Meyer, Michael J.; Shanks, Thomas; McLean, Margaret R.; DeCosse, David; Andre, Claire; Hanson, Kirk O. (2009). A Framework for Thinking Ethically. Retrieved from http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/framework.html

Photo courtesy of Nancy Waldmen.