1 Intro to Ethics
Welcome to Introduction to Ethics. This fully online, open access course is intended to meet the needs of teachers and students undertaking a study of introductory level ethics and moral theory
Section 1: What You WIll Find Here
The course module is broken into several subdivisions, which may be used in the manner that best meets the individual needs of students and teachers. These subdivisions include: Intro to Ethics; Critical Thinking; Normative Ethics; Applied Ethics; Metaethics; and Case Studies. Each subdivision is populated with active links to texts and resources that will help teachers and students alike achieve a core understanding of major moral theories, tools for evaluating contemporary moral questions, and an awareness of the critical thinking skills at work in moral decision-making.
Section 2: How to Use This Resource
The organization of materials in this microsite is modeled after successful, contemporary classroom resources. The study of ethics involves a nearly endless array of possible subject matters, which teachers and authors attempt to address in a variety of fashions. Some begin with critical thinking skills, while others begin with case studies. Some begin with consideration of human conscience, while others begin with the major, historical normative models for thinking about moral life. This online course has been created as a collection of resources for educators and students, approaching this content from any of these perspectives. The developers have intended to provide a sequence of materials that begins with critical thinking skills, shifts into normative theories, the application of ethics, metaethical considerations, and concludes with case studies. While information transfers between modules, materials do not need to be used sequentially as they appear in this microsite. Our goal is to all course users maximal flexibility to tailor these resources to individual and classroom interests.
Section 3: Explanation of Organization
Studying ethics is an important part of any higher education, and this is not just because ethics studies involve a rich literary history comprised of commonly referenced figures such as Plato and Aristotle. Studying ethics is important because it helps us become more aware of why we do what we do; why we think right and wrong are in fact “right” or “wrong;” how we manage resources and laws in society; and why as individuals we feel inclined or disinclined to comply with norms, rules, and social customs for behavior, appearance, and more. Everything we do has ethical implications, regardless of whether we are paying attention to those implications all the time or not.
Consider a random day in one’s life that begins with showering, getting coffee or breakfast, and dressing for work. As an ethically aware person, I might as myself questions, such as: Am I careful with the water and food resources I have used this morning? Do I know where my coffee was sourced and how the growers were paid and treated? Did I drink from styrofoam or glass? Do I know where my clothing was manufactured? If I am late, am I driving with an eye to everyone’s safety on the road, or am I focused on trying to make it to my meeting on time? Do I answer a text in the car? Do I obey a stop light at an isolated intersection despite the fact that no cars, pedestrians, or police are within sight, or do I go through it to make up some time? Do I greet people in my office or rush to my desk? Do I sort my waste products at lunch? Where do I shop for groceries on my way home? Do I know where the fruit I buy is grown? Do I carpool or drive myself? Do I use paper or plastic bags? Questions such as these drive home the prevailing nature of ethics in the human life. From the food we eat to the showers we take, from the way I talk to my coworkers to the way I treat my grandmother, from where I buy lunch to where my retirement funds are invested, people are always engaged in actions and conduct that could and perhaps should involve focus and scrutiny.
It is possible to be overwhelmed with moral questions, just as it is easy to reduce ethics to a sense that we operate out of our feelings or intuitive preferences. Indeed, the integrated nature of ethical questions can be daunting, and, to an important extent, feelings and preferences can and do guide people’s behaviors. However, developing a critical lens for understanding the landscape of ethical issues makes it easier to cognize personal feelings and preferences as well as to navigate ethical teachings we learn from religions, schools, parents, and other authorities. Studying ethics empowers people to decide how we wish to act and to be in the world. From the minor things, such as whether I buy chocolate at a particular store, to the major things, such as whether to keep an ill parent on life support, studying ethics can help us to become better thinkers, better voters, better professionals, and more responsible authors of our own lives.
Since ethics has to do with arguably the whole range of human being and behavior, it can be difficult to narrow what subjects to talk about and which ones to leave out. It can also be difficulty to categorize elements of our study, since much of our content carries over into other discussions and areas of thought. Even naming elements of moral philosophy can be tricky. The word “morality” is derived from the Latin word “mors,” which refers to customs of practices. The word “ethics” is derived from the Greek word “ethos,” which refers to nature or disposition. Although these terms are closely related, people engaged in ethics studies frequently distinguish between ethics and morality, using “ethics” to refer to an objective set of rules or principles that one should follow and “morality” to refer to one’s internal convictions about what is right and wrong. Whether these words are used interchangeably or not, they both refer in general to the study of human conduct and character.
In contemporary moral philosophy, people will further differentiate a few key categories. Foremost among these is the study of values, which is concerned with the question of what constitutes “goodness.” Although the concept of “good” may seem immediately self-evident, “goodness” becomes a murkier notion as soon as we try to define it and particularly when we try to name it in a way with which everyone could agree. The differences in human experience can widely impact how we define what is good, what brings about happiness, and how we should strive to achieve good outcomes for ourselves and others. Value studies represent the field of moral philosophy concerned with the nature of Happiness, Goodness, Beauty, and Truth. It is an important component to ethics studies particularly because these lofty concepts elude easy and universal definition.
Related to value studies is the field of normative ethics, which looks at the range of theories related to best or most desirable human outcomes for individuals, societies, or both. In normative ethics studies, one will find a broad array of varied and sometimes competing theories about how people should behave. The term “normative” is used because theories in this area of ethics tend to suggest ultimate governing principles for all human action. In other words, “normative” suggests that there are “normal” or standard or common principles that should or do apply to everyone. The Golden Rule, for example, is a longstanding normative principle that many people believe to be the highest yet simplest guiding rule for social intercourse.
To stick with this example, although many might agree that the Golden Rule is a normative principle for behavior, the origin of such a principle can still be debated. Is this something that arises in the human conscience? Is it merely a conceptual development that human beings made up in order to survive as a species over the long course of human evolution? Is it a dictum established by God and made available to human beings through a divine teacher or revelation? Questions such as these fall under yet another major subcomponent of moral philosophy, known as metaethics. As in the example above, one can surmise that theories range from a conviction that moral principles are extrinsic and objective to the assertion that principles are merely posited social constructs or even personally derived attitudes. Studying metaethics helps us to understand where we ourselves fall on such questions, and it equips students to better understand and evaluate the nature and persuasiveness of other people’s moral assertions.
The ultimate goal of studying ethics is to be able to apply ethics in our lives and work. Just as personal questions of virtue and character are of the utmost significance to individual lives, equally important are questions of applied ethics in professional and performance capacities. Across professional disciplines, one finds an active effort at establishing and achieving institutional standards for fair human resource management, non-discrimination, environmental stewardship, grievance resolutions, building safety, client care, and so on. These are but a few examples of how the study of ethics translates into applied policy and practice. Studying applied ethics across a field of professional, governmental, and legal arenas is crucial to understanding whether policies are just and good as well as how to improve them based on normative standards rooted in core values.
One way to bring ethics discussions to life is through actual study of specific moral dilemmas and issues. This approach is called a case study method. By looking at case studies, we have the opportunity to see concrete moral issues from multiple perspectives. This is an essential tool in evaluating the logic of varying points of view. What is more, case studies often engage readers personally, providing the opportunity for self-assessment of one’s own reactions, prejudgments, intuitive senses, and logical strengths and weaknesses in the face of challenging moral questions. Being able to analyze and evaluate case studies as well as oneself as a thinker are skills vital to developing moral agency.
In closing, studying ethics will help students at any level to more successfully navigate important issues in our world. Ethics studies often introduce students to moral issues in fields outside of their own professional trajectories as well as attune students to new dimensions of moral issues about which they may already know a great deal. While ethics studies should not tell us what to think or how to act, students will develop strategies for reasoned, logical debate on even very sensitive or contentious matters; more self-aware; furnished with critical reasoning skills for analysis and evaluation; and, perhaps most importantly, more intentional about the conduct and character of self and society.