Deciding Right from Wrong: Why Ethics is So Important


In the television show “The Good Place,” a dead philosopher named Chidi tries to make his fellow citizens into better people by exposing them to the concerns of moral philosophers. This involves the “trolley dilemma.” And it illustrates the problem of ethics in our society, a problem that is becoming more acute.

The trolley problem is a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology, involving stylized ethical dilemmas of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number. The series usually begins with a scenario in which a runaway tram or trolley is on course to collide with and kill several people (traditionally five) down the track, but a driver or bystander can intervene and divert the vehicle to kill just one person on a different track.

Then other variations of the runaway vehicle and analogous life-and-death dilemmas (medical, judicial etc.) are posed, each containing the option to either do nothing, in which case several people will be killed, or intervene and sacrifice one initially “safe” person to save the others.”Pretend you are operating a trolley when the brakes fail, and five construction workers are in your path on the track ahead of you. You can now change to a different track, but there is only one person there that you will murder as opposed to the other five. What will you do?

Unfortunately, Chidi’s efforts are negated when he is immediately forced to decide what he would do when driving a trolley with broken brakes.

The argument against studying these scenarios is that the situations are theoretical. Or are they? Self-driving cars have already proven their potential risks with tragedies such as the first pedestrian death by a self-driving car in Tempe, Arizona. Increasingly we are asking Artificial Intelligence devices to make the ethical decisions that humans would make.

Why Study Ethics?

There is merit in looking for ethical principles and guidelines that everyone could agree upon. Not because it will always be obvious how we should behave, but because it improves our understanding of ourselves and our society. This may even better equip us to face the major issues of the 21st century, such as pandemics, inequality, climate change and artificial intelligence.

Philosophers have struggled for millennia to come up with a set of universal ethical principles.

To comprehend why, we can examine human history, from the development of law in cultures over the past 10,000 years to the potential impact of ethics on our distant future.

It can be useful to distinguish between ethics and “morality” because we tend to focus on morality. Morality is a person’s perception of how they should treat other people, which is both intuitive and emotional. It is a system or collection of ideas of right and wrong conduct.

On the other hand, ethics is a formalized set of rules of conduct in a particular group or culture. For instance, even though almost everyone has a strong moral conviction that killing is wrong and that it “mustn’t be done,” ethicists have long sought to understand when it might still be acceptable (in times of war, as in the case of the death penalty or euthanasia).

This inherent moral sense enables people to get along in small and relatively isolated groups. However, human civilizations grew to be so vast and intricate that new organizational principles were required.

Ethical concepts and values exist throughout our history. As an example, the law code of Hammurabi, a collection of 282 rules, established standards for commercial interactions and set fines and punishments to meet the requirements of justice. It was composed in Babylon in about 1800 BC, and boldly declares its author’s purpose which was “to establish the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not oppress the weak; so that I should… enlighten the land to promote the welfare of mankind.”

While these are laudable goals and address our innate sense of justice, the main ethical advancement of legal codes like these is that they make moral judgments objective so that they are no longer merely subjective. This rule of law was supposed to obligate rulers to keep their word and apply the law fairly in addition to obliging subjects to obey the ruler.

The first modern ethical notions would appear during the 8th to the 3rd century BC. in Greece, Israel, India, and China.

While there were significant variations between these cultures, there were also some key similarities. This is hardly surprising considering that these societies were already established trading partners, but it also shows that they were attempting to address similar issues, such as how a community develops organizational and ethical standards that are truly appealing to all people. One such commonality is what is known as the “Golden Rule” or its equivalent.

The “Golden Rule,” usually referred to as the reciprocity principle, is a recurring theme in all of these societies. For illustration, the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus said, “Avoid doing anything that you would accuse others of doing.”

The Buddhist Dharma can be summed up in these words: “That which is not favourable to us, do not do that to others.”

The Golden Rule’s popularity among such a wide range of cultures is a reflection of both how simple and valuable it is. It unmistakably conveys a vital message about how we should live.

Those philosophies always added a more extensive code of ethics to the Golden Rule, and they did it in various ways. Some systems, particularly in Europe, appeal to the moral compass of a moral arbiter (such as a god, ruler or wise human). Other views of the Golden Rule, such as in Confucianism, refer to the social order’s stability. Others focus on the importance of humanity and transcendence, arguing that we were meant collectively play a much bigger and integrated role in the universe.

These beliefs are employed to support moral standards that guide our daily behavior. Yet, these ideals frequently deviate thereby sustaining social inequality, slavery, misogyny, and crimes against humanity.

In my article “Can the Golden Rule Become the Ethics Standard in Business?” I go into greater detail on the Golden Rule as it applies to modern business organizations.

Utilitarianism and Universal Laws

Utilitarianism is an ethical doctrine that asserts virtue is based on utility, and that conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons. Utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism, which states that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong.

The concept has been applied to social welfare economics, the crisis of global poverty, the ethics of raising animals for food, and the importance of avoiding existential risks to humanity. There has been a blossoming of fresh ethical perspectives throughout the past 250 years. One of these is the claim that moral obligations should be universal laws that everyone must abide by without exception or disagreement.

John Stuart Mill’s explanation of the concept of utility in his work, Utilitarianism, is that people do desire happiness, and since each desires happiness, it must follow that all of us desire the happiness of everyone, contributing to a larger social utility.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested that we can find ethical principles by examining the opposite. In other words, principles that would conflict with one another if applied uniformly. He claimed that it is never moral to lie under any circumstances since, if there were a universal law that lying was okay, nobody would believe anyone.

I find it personally disturbing that lying in political life now has become acceptable, fueled by fake news and information in the mainstream media and social media.

Another viewpoint, known as utilitarianism, contends that there are some universal values we all share, such as “well-being,” and that these ideals should be regarded as a universal good. These are values we should all strive to uphold, thus we should create ethical standards that support them.

Both strategies combine logic and an appeal that transcends prior ethical reasoning. Furthermore, they sidestep difficulties like the requirement to appeal to a higher authority by firmly rooting themselves in moral or ethical principles rather than attributing them to religious entities.

But there is a problem with Utilitarianism.

The first is that there are differences between these two perspectives about both what people ought to do and the theoretical underpinnings of ethics. This is demonstrated by returning to the “trolley problem,” which Phillipa Foot first proposed in 1967.

Utilitarian viewpoints support the conclusion that we should reroute the trolley, killing one person instead of five, to maximize well-being. Utilitarians argue that although killing one person is awful, killing five is five times worse than one. And there are endless variations of the trolley problem that can cause people to change their decision. For example, what if on one trolley track there were five children, and on the other, your spouse? Which would you choose?

Contrarily, the Kantian (ie., the philosophy of German philosopher Immanuel Kant) tradition assesses these decisions according to how well they would translate into universal laws. Think about the solution suggested by utilitarians above: moving the trolley so that it kills only one person instead of the other five. This might be written down as a law: “I will sacrifice one person if it means that I can save the lives of many people.”

Although this principle says that human lives have intrinsic value and should be saved, it also implies that they can be used as a means to achieve other goals. According to Kant, any global law for rational creatures would therefore have to state that it is always wrong to kill or lie, even if it means saving more lives. Using this rationale, we would not engage in wars, regardless of our perceptions of the country or group we view as responsible.

There is a long history of philosophers attempting to reconcile these disagreements and develop a single theory of ethics. Most philosophers, however, feel that such a unification is at best a long way off and that the acrimonious debate surrounding issues like the trolley dilemma suggests that it might not be approaching any faster.

Unfortunately, ethical issues in the real world are not often so obvious. They usually present complicated decision-making challenges to groups or systems that do not all have strong decision-making capabilities. Even though only a few researchers have addressed the ethics of complexity or the realities of ambiguity, their work is largely the exception.

When we shift from thinking about ethical principles for morally upright people to employing these ideas to create ethical algorithms, this challenge becomes extremely significant. Artificial intelligence researchers are currently trying to influence the judgments made by autonomous vehicles by giving examples based on the trolley problem. However, unlike the trolley dilemma, drivers of these vehicles must make decisions in complicated and uncertain surroundings. They must also answer to everyone and not just reflect the ideals and principles of their creators.

The Ethics of the Future

What might the future of ethics hold in light of all of this? How might they impact the way we live and work? Let’s think about two potential scenarios.

“More of the same” can be used to describe one of these. While we are currently making much more progress in this direction than at any other time in human history, it would be hubris to assert confidently that we are not capable of repeating the mistakes of the past. People have been attempting to create coherent systems of ethical principles for thousands of years. We need to look no further than recurring wars, conflicts and corruption in business.

A second future is far bleaker. In this case, ethics as a whole disintegrates because we can’t embrace universal ethical principles or their applications. Perhaps we move to a more data-driven culture that makes our belief in humanistic ideals that ethicists invoke in their theories less credible, or perhaps people grow tired of our theoretical musings. Perhaps in the future, everyone will once again rely on ethical intuition and common sense morality, or perhaps we will discover a method to avoid encounters that require ethical standards to govern them and continue to live in isolation where confrontation is just impossible.

However, this is a challenge that is only growing more and more difficult as local communities fracture and stratifies, global societies integrate, technological and environmental change quickens, and the difficulties of resolving the global issues we face increase. The issue of social breakdown may have inspired the development of ethics in the past, but it still exists today, and its effects as seen in the current chaos in the world are perhaps worse than ever.

Some observers are optimistic that we may forge a third future, relying on the moral frameworks we have inherited in search of fundamental truths that can both direct human behaviour and tackle the urgent problems we confront.

Several philosophers have proposed that, should humanity be able to navigate this time of increased global risk and uncertainty, we take the opportunity for a “long reflection” during which we purposefully slow down technological advancement to give us time to reflect on who we are and what we value before deciding what to do next. The chances of strengthening moral behavior and a system of commonly embraced ethics would be in our favor if we were successful in doing this.

My Perspective

I’ve approached the issue of ethics in my last two books, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Ethical and Moral Leaders, and Virtuous Leadership: The Character Secrets of Great Leaders; I describe how many of the problems of modern society have been caused by lapses in moral and ethical behavior, and why we need a greater focus on leaders who exhibit good character and virtuous behavior to address our most pressing problems.



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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others