So, what the heck are ethics anyway?

Delving into the topic of neuroethics has already led the class to some really fascinating discussion topics, but I’ve noticed that we continue to use the word “ethics” as though we all know exactly what it means and what it implies. As is typical of so many human inventions, the term “ethics” or “ethical” has taken on a seemingly objective role in language, and we tend use it accordingly; something is either ethical or it isn’t. Unfortunately, I have trouble finding the line between those not-so-distinct categories. SO, to help me (and anyone who wants to read this) understand what exactly we mean when we say “ethical”, I’m outsourcing to all sorts of definitions and perspectives for us (the royal us?) to consider.

First, the classic chain of dictionary definitions:



1. Of or relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these.

2. Morally correct

Okay, great, s…

Moral: adj. Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.

Alright, I’m following, so…

Good: adj. To be desired or approved of.

Awesome! So, this is what I gain from the dictionary definition: We’ve already discussed how that the passive voice isn’t as terrible as your english professor always told you, the above definition is another instance of how it can be helpful! The phrase, “to be approved” indicates that something has to be done in order for an noun to be paired with the above adjective. So, ultimately, to be good/moral/ethical is a choice, whether conscious or not. This means that some party, whether it’s me or the IRB or the society, has to actively approve of something,  – or passively accept it – for that something to be considered moral. So, on some level, there is a decision being made, either by accepting or not rejecting whatever the object in question may be (perhaps a null hypothesis?) Moving on.

Another, somewhat different view is presented by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer of Santa Clara University. (see link for their thoughts)

I gleaned two definitions/sources of ethics from this article: feelings and utilitarian values. That is, whatever lends itself to the greater good of a community or society. The former is quite personal and the latter, very general, but both imply that a context is needed in order for any decision to made as to whether something is ethical or not. [This is the point where I point to the idea of different cultures/communities/people having very different ethics and still all being able to have the ‘correct’ set of ethics]. For example, we might consider the famous scenario in which a man steals medication to feed his dying wife? Is the law or the man ethically correct? Would it change if the money that would have been paid for the medication was supposed to go towards the hospital bills of the pharmacist’s very ill child?    <— CONTEXT!

It’s not really so cut and dry, and I’ve been a part of hour long debates revolving around such topics. So, decisions are made, context must be considered… what else? Any thoughts, guys?


3 thoughts on “So, what the heck are ethics anyway?

  1. Great idea to investigate the definition! I feel like often times we get carried away using words and the definition starts to morph and become vague in our minds.


  2. One particular point you made that caught my attention was how “…some party, whether it’s [oneself]… or the society, has to actively approve of something, – or passively accept it – for that something to be considered moral.” This is what I would consider to be how something is deemed to be ethical today. I think society places a judgement on whether something is a “moral”, “good”, or proper behavior. It then gets tricky as to what defines a good or moral or proper behavior, particularly in your example of the man stealing medecine fro his ill wife. For me, it seems that while he is doing a “right” justice by giving the medecin to the sick, it still is stealing which is something society has deemed to be against the law and thus “bad” and even “unethical”. Regardless of the reason for him stealing, stealing is stealing. These “ethical” laws help to hold society in order, for what would happen if everyone was free to steal and break laws as long as they felt they were doing someone good? I think the culture, society, and time period that we live in determines what is ethical.


  3. This is a very interesting idea to think about, whether something is ‘ethical’ or not. Particularly doing when designing experiments, which relates to many problems researchers have. How subjects are treated and what is considered too far when manipulating them for an experiment are all raised questions. While something may not by definition be ethical, it is important to remember the potential outcome that would result and what greater benefits that may have. This aspect often becomes an important factor in whether or not someone feels they can do something that may not necessarily be considered ethical.


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