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Reflections on Ethics 81
Further Reflections on Ethics

by: Paul W. Sharkey

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In the previous Reflection, I outlined what I take to be the most fundamental aspect of ethics: responsibility.[1] One reason for this is that freedom is an absolutely necessary presupposition of ethics, and freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. On the one side, one cannot be said to justifiably be held responsible for what one has no control over – or is not free to determine – and on the other, anything we are free to do, we are therefore responsible for. What it comes down to then is a question of what is within our control and what is not and for those things that are within our control, how to make “good” decisions about them – those for which with integrity we can fully acknowledge and accept responsibility.

The history of ethics is replete with theories about how to go about making such decisions. Academic ethicists have categorized these into deontological (those based upon the notion of duty) or non-consequentialist theories, and teleological (those based upon the merit of the ends they promote) or consequentialist theories.[2] As I have argued, I believe each of these to be only half of the story because one cannot realistically separate one’s beliefs and behaviors from their consequences and therefore focusing only on one side (one’s intent or “duty”) or the other (the ends or consequences) to the exclusion of the other is simply not facing reality. One cannot excuse oneself (try to escape responsibility for one’s decisions and their consequences) simply by appeal to some deontological or teleological ethical theory any more than one should blame someone else, god or otherwise, for his or her own decisions, behaviors and their consequences. In my book, none of these theories constitute being truly ethical but rather attempts to escape from it.

What then are we to do? Are there no acceptable theories or principles to guide us in the unavoidable fact that we must make decisions in our daily lives, both personal and professional, which have consequences for which we are responsible precisely by virtue of making those decisions?

In addition to a myriad of ethical theories there are also a number of basic principles which have been proposed to guide our decisions and behavior. Among the most universally recognized of these is the Golden Rule which has both prescriptive and proscriptive versions.[3] One problem with the golden rule, however, is its ambiguity. Not only can there be quite an ethical difference between the proscriptive and prescriptive versions, there is also a sort of inherent existential ambiguity owing to the fact that not everyone would (or would not) wish others to do (or not) the same things to them. What the golden rule does do, however, is appeal to a sense of our wish for consistency or fairness in the way we would like to be treated and the way we are expected to treat others. An even more basic principle however, and one presupposed by even the golden rule itself, was adopted, followed and taught by no more ethically respected individuals than Socrates, Hippocrates, Siddhartha and Jesus, among others. Simply put, it is: “Do no harm!”[4] We could do worse than to follow their lead and example.

Notes:

  1. Reflection 80
  2. See for example Reflection 05 which provides a fairly good summary overview introduction and resources for this aspect of ethics.
  3. Prescriptive version: “Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.”
    Prospective: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”
  4. I intend to say a lot more about just what this means, its role in a demonstrable moral truth, and its relation to responsibility, learning, and a virtuous life but all that is, I think, a bit much for here and now and better saved for subsequent submissions to Reflections on Ethics and Meditations.