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Understanding Ethics: Overcoming the Fundamental Confusions

November 11, 2013 – 10:16 am9 Comments


By Jonathan Schauder:

The confusing notion of ethics

There is a growing frustration driven by a lack of definition and understanding of how we might achieve certain vague interpersonal ideas. For example people say that they want to communicate better, but don’t have any idea about how that might happen; similarly we might say “let’s act collaboratively” but we don’t know how; or I might commit to giving “constructive criticism” to people but discover that I’m confused by the tautology.

Ethics has become similarly frustrating. We are asked, especially at this time of the year, to be more ethical, to do the ”right” thing, to be more ethically proactive or responsible – but what does that mean? The purpose of this article is to shed some simple light on what is otherwise considered a very vague topic.

The current world view

I think we all have some idea about what ethics is meant to be. We want to be able to say that we have standards about human interactions that enable us to demonstrate our highest capacity as good and effective human beings.

When you ask most people about their “ethical framework” they usually respond in two ways:

  1. The first is to say, “it depends on the circumstances”.

  2. The second is to explain that “as long as I don’t hurt anyone”, then my actions are probably ethical.

Both responses demonstrate a fundamental confusion about ethics.

Confusion 1: “It depends on circumstances” – The excuse of context

To begin with the notion that ethics are contextual is confusing. Yes, an ethical framework will be applied to new contexts, but the framework an individual holds should be applicable in any/every situation. If a situation arises in which an individual’s ethical framework proves to be unhelpful or flawed, you could argue the framework should be discarded or replaced. As a quick example, the Biblical notion of “do unto others as you would have done to you” is an ethical statement that applies across the board, and is therefore a reliable framework. We just have to consider what it means in any given context. In short, ethical thinking doesn’t depend on context.

Confusion 2: “As long as I don’t hurt anyone, then my actions are ethical…” – The difference between Law and Ethics

The second problem is that people confuse ethics with Law. Not hurting others is a legal concept. The Ten Commandments was pretty clear on that – no stealing, killing, coveting and so on. Similarly the Donohue vs Stephenson precedent in the late 1800’s made it pretty clear that 1. If a duty of care is owed; 2. That duty is breached; and 3. The breach causes harm – then that is negligence, and can of course be civilly or criminally negligent.

Let’s be clear on this point, the law is an ethical paradigm, but it is the absolute lowest and simplest form of ethics accepted within our society. In other words, if you hurt others, and therefore break the law, you are deemed by society to have breeched the most fundamental of ethical standards and you should be punished for it.

So what is the difference between the law and ethics?

Well, in essence, the law demands that you avoid hurting other people.

Ethics however is something much higher in its ambitions. An ethical paradigm is the question in reverse,

“How can I ensure that I am helping others and the world?”.

The difference is as fundamental as the comparison of turning away from evil (law) versus turning towards good (ethic).

Making it Happen – Understanding Ethics

So what does all of this mean and how does anyone actually do it?

1. Your ethical framework is being called on every minute of your interactive day

There is a perception that ethics are only called into question when you have a serious dilemma, important choice to make, or problem to solve. That is a misleading idea. It is exciting to think that in every interaction you have with other people, you are drawing on your ethical paradigm. For example, do you choose to listen right now or speak? Do you choose to yell or talk politely? When you make promises are they realistic? Do you intend to break them? Are you being careful when you communicate to avoid misunderstanding or are you leaving your intentions open to wide interpretations?

2. An Ethical Proposition: Ethic is measured by the extent to which you are “other-centred”.

2000 years ago a famous scholar, Rabbi, judge and teacher named Hillel coined a helpful phrase to assist the world to understand ethics. It goes like this:

“If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? ;

and if I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, then when?”

Understanding these ideas will assist anyone to become clearer how to use their “ethics”.

Starting with phrase one, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?” There is an acknowledgement that we all need to act in preservation of self-interest and self-empowerment.

Phrase two is the critical ethic, “and if I am only for myself, what am I?” Here the notion is that to be an integrated human being, I must also place high value on being concerned with the needs, hopes and aspirations of others. If I give up this inherent human capacity, Hillel suggests I become a “what”, I lose my humanity and become an animal or an isolated object.

And phrase three, “if not now, then when?” is a fundamental statement of action. In other words, it is all well and good to have other-centred intentions, but if your thinking does not translate into immediate behaviour and action then the value is destroyed, the ethic is irrelevant. Good intent is insufficient.

3. So what does that mean in practice?

In essence, what this statement teaches us is that to be “ethical” is to have a deep commitment to helping others with their needs hopes and aspirations.  Put another way, when faced with an explicit ethical tension rather than asking – “How do avoid hurting the other person”, I instead ask myself –  “What can I do to help or assist the other involved in this tension?”

A self reflection on your other-centredness

Consider the extent to which you deliberately consider and appreciate the needs of others your decision-making?

Where does your approach fit?

Extent to which “Other” is considered

Ethical level

  1. No consideration of other, essentially self-centred.

Law of the jungle. Illegal.

  1. Accidental or spontaneous acknowledgement of others that “avoids others being hurt…”

Luck. Essentially lawful but no demonstrable ethical thinking.

  1. Sufficient consideration of other to avoid negative consequences for yourself.

The basic legal approach (no ethic).

  1. Deliberate consideration of the other in an attempt to avoid harm to other.

Basic “natural justice”. Demonstrable capacity for ethical thinking but may not be reflected in action.

  1. A deliberately balanced analysis of self-need and other-need for the purpose of helping the other, and managing a demonstrable process.

Genuine ethical commitment.

  1. Commitment of serious time, resources and effort trying to understand and assist the other party whilst still protecting yourself.

Highly ethical approach.

  1. Deliberate and systematic suppression of self-interest to conduct a process aimed at helping another to achieve their aspirations.

Highest level of ethical behaviour. Considered righteousness in most religious, moral and humanist frameworks. Charitable.

What does this all mean for you?

The next time you are tyring to act ethically (which should be all the time), the first question to ask is “How can I help others in this circumstance?”; “What might they be needing, feeling or experiencing that I can account for in my solution or decision?”; “Can I commit further to making the most positive assumptions about them and their situation before I succumb to the weakness of thinking they are simply here for either my benefit or my detriment?”

The idea is that the more you can commit to analysing the needs of others, and provoking your actions to assist others, as well as learning about others – the more ethical your actions will feel within yourself, and the more ethical you will be in the eyes of the world.

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  • MargB says:

    Great article. ANd I love the cartoon which anyone purporting to believe in God should recall.

  • Sunshine says:

    Excellent article. Often used by supporters of abusers…. “They were never found guilty or convicted” therefore they must be innocent

  • Jonny Schauder says:

    Thanks for the nice comments guys! Thanks for publishing Galus.

  • YK says:

    With the Torah, law and ethics are inseparable. When you write that:

    “Well, in essence, the law demands that you avoid hurting other people.

    Ethics however is something much higher in its ambitions. An ethical paradigm is the question in reverse,

    ‘How can I ensure that I am helping others and the world?’.

    The difference is as fundamental as the comparison of turning away from evil (law) versus turning towards good (ethic).”

    Torah law demands both, and it is in fact codified in Jewish law.

    Just sayin’

  • Jonny Schauder says:

    YK… Whole point of the article mate. Thanks. Yes this is all definitely Jewish ideas. Especially in lead up to mitzvah day etc..I think if it is codified as clearly as you’re suggesting then a lot of people remain very unaware or confused between law and ethic. Both are required. Agreed. There are so many current examples of Jewish Community Leaders or members defending themselves by the concept of “do no harm”. And very little demonstrable efforts to demonstrate we are doing good in every decision…Its a constant challenge for everyone.

  • Jonny – great and thought-provoking article. It should be noted that the ethical proposition you describe has a built-in conflict between the needs of the individual and of others. Indeed, any proposition that contains more than one clause is likely to lead to certain situations where the clauses conflict, so it would be interesting to explore further how to deal with such conflicts.

    In particular, I note that as you go higher up your scale of “extent to which the Other is considered”, you end up with a “suppression of self-interest”, which conflicts with the first clause of Hillel’s statement.

  • letters in the age says:

    I see that ethics as a single subject is being taught and replacing religion in many school curriculums.

    Good one Johnny.


  • Jonny says:

    Thanks letters. Thanks David.
    Yes David
    My perception is that knowing your own interests and believing in your own interests (as Hillel insist you should) and despite that making the deliberate decision to go
    without or deliberately self suppress is the highest form of ethic. It assumes the giving at that point is at its highest. Thanks for the dilemma mate.

  • Jonny says:

    Sorry I didn’t comment on your first point David – the conflict of legal clauses.

    The assumption is that one person is claiming “harm” and attributing it to the actions of another in order to receive compensation.

    Because it is society that determines rights or wrongs, not the individuals, That “harm” and “action” need to be legally definable to be adjudicated in by society against a test of reality society deems fair.

    None of that presents an ethical tension in and of itself. And of course defending yourself against illegitimate claims cannot be seen as unethical.

    The ethic in the situation of direct legal engagement goes to how the parties interact and take responsibility for their own genuine contribution.

    I know we would agree that even when you are making or defending a legal claim – ethics still count in the plethora of decisions made within that interaction ie. your demonstrated concern for the other as you progress.

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