Ethics deals with making decisions that are "good" or "right." All decisions have an ethical component, but ethics doesn't necessarily dictate what our decisions should be — rather, it helps us to understand the issues so we can make wise decisions. The study of ethics is necessary when faced with a difficult decision for several reasons:

  1. Clarifies the important moral issues involved
  2. Informs us of which choices violate the principles of good ethics (we should not do these)
  3. Helps us think through the decision in a comprehensive way so we don't miss anything

This article has two parts:

  1. Define a framework within which we can decide how to make ethical decisions
  2. Discuss various topics from the perspective of this framework

Framework | The Role of Government | Practical Matters


We all need a well-thought-out framework to guide us in making ethical and socially responsible decisions. My conclusion is that the best approach is a pragmatic (practical) one, in which the chosen actions are not only:

  1. Ethically justified, but also
  2. Effective in accomplishing the goals.

As one step in the decision process we need to consider the various short-term benefits and the longer-term benefits. Choices should be rejected if they:

  1. Are illegal (with exceptions noted in the next section)
  2. Can't be implemented due to organizational inertia (the tendency of organizations and people to resist change)
  3. Violate barrier rights. Examples of barrier rights that all people have:
    • The right to have freedom of choice in pursuing our interests
    • To right to physical security (not harmed physically)
  4. Violate the law of love (that we are motivated by our love for one another)
  5. Are too expensive in terms of human sacrifice (for example, if it will cost you your career)

Any choice that passes these tests is ethically acceptable.

The Role of Government

People rightly say that the role of government is to provide an orderly society, but it also provides an enforceable set of moral and ethical values which control the functioning of our society. Within the laws are embedded (hopefully) our culture's moral values. As members of our society we have an obligation to conform to these societal values in order to contribute to a peaceful and orderly society.

The law, therefore, provides a standard for us to use in deciding how to act in a socially responsible manner. It is only justified to disobey the law:

  1. When you have a strong conviction that the ethical values embedded within the law are in need of change (for example, the civil rights protests of the 60s and 70s), and
  2. If you are willing to pay the consequences for doing the illegal actions.

Such was the case with the civil rights movement. Some people paid a dear price to overcome the prejudices and biases in our culture, but thank God they did.

In measuring whether people are making decisions that are socially responsible, there is no reason to expect that they follow a higher standard than that provided by the law, since the law defines the social norms. For example, if the law does not forbid me as a manager of a business to consult with others in the same industry, so that we can determine a course of action that is beneficial to us all, then we are not under any obligation to restrict our activities in this regard. But if the law does forbid price fixing among fellow competitors, then doing so is unethical.

If we desire to have a particular moral or ethical view be a value in our society, then we should make laws that reflect these values. The purpose of laws is to have an orderly society that maintains the values of the culture at large.

Practical Matters

I am providing a brief analysis of some ethically challenging issues.

  1. Abortion — This is a hot topic in our society today. Let's analyze it using the framework I proposed in a previous section.

    Since abortion is legal, it is not unethical for that reason. But certainly if we consider the unborn child to be human, then abortion violates the barrier rights of that unborn person in that it terminates their life. It comes down to determining at what point a person becomes human. Certainly everyone agrees that once a baby is born that they are human, even though it will be years before full development is finished. If we define "human" as being fully developed then we would be able to justify killing people up to age 18, as well as people who have deformities or other abnormalities.

    If a baby is human at birth, we have to ask the question, "why are they not human one minute before birth, or one day before, or one month before?" There is no good answer to this, therefore abortion is unethical. In addition, our laws consider it murder to kill an unborn baby in the case of violent acts against a pregnant woman. So why is it not murder merely because the mother chooses to terminate the life instead of a third party?

    Women want (or are pressured) to have abortions as a form of after-the-fact birth control. They may feel that they have the barrier right to "choose" what they do with their bodies, and this is correct. The problem arises because there is another person involved — that of the unborn child who also has the barrier right to physical security.

  2. Divorce — Divorce causes pain and suffering for the two people involved as well as for the children and other relatives. In this regard it violates the law of love, and is therefore unethical. But the same could be said of any other division between humans which cause suffering, such as (1) church splits, (2) the breakup of friendships, (3) civil wars, etc.

    The real issue concerns the nature of marriage. Is it a lifetime commitment or not? One way to consider the issue is in terms of the sexual relationship — that it is only proper in the context of a lifetime commitment. We can observe that whenever people who are involved in a sexual relationship have a breakup, there is soul-wrenching pain involved. Thus, for any person to enter into such a relationship without fully intending a lifelong relationship is to violate the law of love.

    But divorce is ethical in certain situations of abuse (more info).

  3. Promiscuity — There is an overlap between this topic and the topic of divorce. In one very real sense, the act of having sexual relations is one of the defining characteristics of a marriage. In other words, by having sexual relations, you become married. One reason for this is because there is the possibility of having children, and based on the law of love, you should only have children if you are prepared in every way to provide for them. This involves a lifelong commitment of both mother and father to each other and to the children.

    Typically in promiscuous sexual relationships outside of the context of marriage, there is a painful breakup of the partners. Both people feel that their human dignity has been violated and that they are merely objects used by others to satisfy their desires (more info).

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