Monday, December 7, 2009

Preliminary Conceptual and Philosophical Issues


Taking these to be paradigm instances of profession:

  • Medicine
  • Dentistry
  • Veterinary Medicine
  • Law
  • Architecture
  • Accounting

Five features distinguish what we now call profession from other types of occupations.

  1. “Entrance into a professing typically requires an extensive period of training and this training is of an intellectual character.”
  2. “Professionals’ knowledge and skills are vital to the well-being of the larger society.”
  3. “Professionals usually have a monopoly or near monopoly on the provision of professional services.”
  4. “Professionals often have an unusual degree of autonomy in the work place.”
  5. “Professionals claim to be regulated by ethical standards, usually embodied in a code of ethics.”

The importance of ethics to profession: -

The early meaning of the term profession and its cognates referred to a free act of commitment to a way of life. The earliest meaning of the adjective professed referred to the activity of a person who had taken the monastic vows of a religious order. We might think of a person who had made a public promise to enter a distinct way of life with allegiance to high moral ideas. One ‘professed’ to be a certain type of person and to occupy a special social role, which carried with it stringent moral requirements. By the late seventeenth century, the word had become secularized to refer to anyone who professed to be duly qualified.

So, with regard to engineering, professionalism and ethics:

To think of yourself as a professional is to believe in the importance of your work to society at large, and to be committed to various standards which transcend your relationship with a particular employer or client, to high standards of quality in your work but also to high ethical standards.


Given the importance of engineering in all modern societies, it is reasonable to expect engineers to think of themselves as professionals, and the various professional societies increasingly stress the importance of engineering ethics.

Personal ethics, Common morality and Professional ethics:

  • Common Morality: “The set of moral standards shared by most members of a culture or society.”
  • Personal Ethics: “The set of one’s own ethical commitments.”
  • Professional Ethics: “The set of standards adopted by professionals insofar as they see themselves acting as professionals.”

Obviously these three kinds of standards sometimes conflict. Luckily, very few engineers will have to make truly momentous ethical decisions in the course of their careers, but, as this course will emphasize, more quotidian ethical decisions are called for in all engineer’s careers.

Ethics, Philosophy and Inquiry

Normative ethics, Meta-ethics and applied ethics (medical, business, engineering, legal ethics etc) are all branches of the discipline called ethics, which is in turn a branch of the discipline call philosophy.

“Philosophy” derives from the Greek words for love (philo) and wisdom (sophia). For the ancient Greeks, “philosophy” was love of wisdom. But while this might give us the beginning of an idea of what philosophers do today, we need to get more specific to really understand what modern philosophy is.

[Caveat: not all modern philosophers would agree with the following explanation of philosophy. Interestingly, the nature of philosophy is itself a controversial issue among philosophers.]

Philosophy is an area of inquiry.

Inquiry is an attempt to discover truths about the world.

In this way, philosophy is like the sciences, historical research, investigative journalism and detective work. But philosophy is different than these other areas of inquiry in that most of the truths it attempts to discover are more fundamental (i.e., more general and pervasive) than those pursued by other areas of inquiry. Philosophical questions involve concepts like God, knowledge, truth, the mind and consciousness, free will, right and wrong. So philosophy is inquiry into some of the most important issues that face all human beings.

Philosophy is the area of inquiry that attempts to discover truths involving fundamental concepts, such as the concepts of God, knowledge, truth, reality, the mind and consciousness, free will, right and wrong.

[Important: not all philosophers would agree with this definition of philosophy!]

Some of the central questions of philosophy are:

  • Is there a God? If so, what is God like? Is the existence of evil compatible with the existence of an all-caring, all-knowing, all-powerful God? Is belief in the existence of a personal God compatible with belief in evolution? Is the omniscience (all-knowingness) of God compatible with people’s free will? Do people have free will to begin with?
  • What is a person and what is it about an individual that makes him or her same person over time? Is an embryo a person? If not, at what point in a human’s development does he or she become a person?
  • What is the mind and what is the relationship between the mind and the brain?
  • What is knowledge and do we know anything to begin with? Are there things about the world that humans are inherently incapable of knowing?
  • What is it for an action or behavior to be morally good or bad? What is the morally best way for people to live? Does morality depend on God? Does it depend on society? Is abortion morally permissible? Human cloning? Homosexuality? Are there objective moral facts or is morality simply a matter of opinion?

Those last examples are within the field of ethics:

Ethics is the area of philosophy that attempts to answer questions involving concepts such as right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral etc.

So ethics (like other areas of philosophy) is not a mere attempt to articulate what you believe or feel about a given issue. Because it is an area of philosophy, it is an area of inquiry, which means that it is a search for truth.

Nature and Scope of Ethics

What is Ethics?

A few years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, “What does an ethic mean to you?” Among their replies were the following:

“Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong.”

“Ethics has to do with my religious belief.”

“Being ethical is doing what the law requires.”

“Ethics consists of the standards of behavior our society accepts.”

“I don’t know what the world means.”

These replies might be typical of our own. The meaning of “ethics” is hard to pin down and the views many people have about ethics are shaky.

Ethics and Feelings:

Like Baumhart’s first respondent, many people tend to equate ethics with their feelings. But being ethical is clearly not a matter of following one’s feelings. A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing what is right. In fact, feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical.

Ethics and Religion: -

Nor should one identify ethics with religion. Most religions, of course, advocate high ethical standards. Yet if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics applies as much to the behavior of the atheist as to that of the saint. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behavior. Ethics, however, cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion.

Ethics and Law: -

Being ethical is also not the same as following the law. The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe. But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Our own pre-Civil War slavery laws and the apartheid laws of present-day South Africa are grotesquely obvious examples of laws that deviate from what is ethical.

Ethics and Social Standards: -

Finally, being ethical is not the same as doing “whatever society accepts.” In any society, most people accept standards that are, in fact, ethical. But standards of behavior in society can deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is a good example of a morally corrupt society.

Moreover, if being ethical were doing “whatever society accepts,” then to find out what is ethical, one would have to find out what society accepts. To decide what I should think about abortion, for example, I would have to take a survey of American society and then conform my beliefs to whatever society accepts. But no one ever tries to decide an ethical issue by doing a survey. Further, the lack of society consensus on many issues makes it impossible to equate ethics with whatever society accepts. Some people accept abortion but many others do not. If being ethical were doing whatever society accepts, one would have to find an agreement on issues which does not in fact, exist.

Ethics is Two Things:

What, then, is ethics? Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well based standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness or specific virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to those standards that impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander and fraud. Ethical standards also include those that enjoin virtues of honesty, compassion and loyalty. And, ethical standards include standards relating to rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury and the right to privacy. Such standards are adequate standards of ethics because they are supported by consistent and well founded reasons.

Secondly, Ethics refers to the study and development of one’s ethical standards. As mentioned above, feelings, laws and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one’s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded. Ethics also means, then, the continuous effort of studying our own moral beliefs and our moral conduct and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based.

Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer

Thinking Ethically A Framework for Moral Decision Making


Dealing with the moral issues is often perplexing. How, exactly, should we think through an ethical issue? What questions should we ask? What factors should we consider?

The first step in analyzing moral issues is obvious but not always easy: Get the facts. Some moral issues create controversies simply because we do not bother to cheek the facts. This first step, although obvious, is also among the most important and the most frequently overlooked.

But having the facts is not enough. Facts by themselves only tell us what is; they do not tell us what ought to be. In addition to getting the facts, resolving an ethical issue also requires an appeal to values. Philosophers have developed five different approaches to values to deal with moral issues.

The Utilitarian Approach:

Utilitarianism was conceived in the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to help legislators determine which laws were morally best. Both Bentham and Mill suggested that ethical actions are those that provide the greatest balance of good over evil.

To analyze an issue using the utilitarian approach, we first identify the various courses of action available to us. Second, we ask who will be affected by each action and what benefits or harms will be derived from each. And third, we choose the action that will produce the greatest benefits and the least harm. The ethical action is the one that provides the greatest good for the greatest number.

The Right Approach:

The second important approach to ethics has its roots in the philosophy of the 18th century thinker Immanuel Kant and others like him, who focused on the individual’s right to choose for herself or himself. According to these philosophers, what makes human beings different from mere things is that people have dignity based on their ability to choose freely what they will do with their lives, and they have a fundamental moral right to have these choices respected. People are not objects to be manipulated; it is a violation of human dignity to use people in ways they do not freely choose.

Of course, many different, but related, rights exist besides this basic one. These other rights (an incomplete list below) can be thought of as different aspects of the basic right to be treated as we choose.

  • The right to the truth: We have a right to be told the truth and to be informed about matters that significantly affect our choices.
  • The right of privacy: We have the right to do, believe, and say whatever we choose in our personal lives so long as we do not violate the rights of others.
  • The right not to be injured: We have the right not to be harmed or injured unless we freely and knowingly do something to deserve punishment or we freely and knowingly choose to risk such injuries.
  • The right to what is agreed: We have a right to what has been promised by those with whom we have freely entered into a contract or agreement.

In deciding whether an action is moral or immoral using this second approach, then, we must ask, Dose the action respect the moral rights of everyone? Actions are wrong to the extent that they violate the rights of individuals; the more serious the violation, the more wrongful the action.

The Fairness or Justice Approach:

The fairness or justice approach to ethics has its roots in the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said that “equals should be treated equally and unequal unequally.” The basic moral question in this approach is: How fair is an action? Does it treat everyone in the same way, or does it show favoritism and discrimination?

Favoritism gives benefits to some people without a justifiable reason for singling them out; discrimination imposes burdens on people who are no different from those on whom burdens are not imposed. Both favoritism and discrimination are unjust and wrong.

The Common-Good Approach:

This approach to ethics assumes a society comprising individuals whose own good is inextricably linked to the good of the community. Community members are bound by the pursuit of common values and goals

The common good is a notion that originated more then 2,000 years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, contemporary ethicist John Rawls defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are…..equally to everyone’s advantage.”

In this approach, we focus on ensuring that the social policies, social systems, institutions, and environments on which we depend are beneficial to all. Examples of goods common to all include affordable health care, effective public safety, peace among nations, a just legal system, and an unpolluted environment.

Appeals to the common good urge us to view ourselves as members of the same community, reflecting on broad questions concerning the kind of society we want to become and how we are to achieve that society. While respecting and valuing the freedom of individuals to pursue their own goals we share in common.

The Virtue Approach: -

The virtue approach to ethics assumes that there are certain ideals toward which we should strive, which provide for the full development of our humanity. These ideals are discovered through thoughtful refection on what kind of people we have the potential to become.

Virtues are attitudes or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop our highest potential. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control and prudence are all examples of virtues.

Virtues are like habits; that are, once acquired; they become characteristic of a person. Moreover, a person who has developed virtues will be naturally disposed to act in ways consistent with moral principles. The virtuous person is the ethical person.

In dealing with an ethical problem using the virtue approach, we might ask, what kind of person should I be? What will promote the development of character within myself and any community?

Ethical Problem Solving:

These five approaches suggest that once we have ascertained the facts, we should ask ourselves five questions when trying to resolve a moral issue:

  1. What benefits and what harms will each course of action produce, and which alternative will lead to the best overall consequences?
  2. What moral rights do the affected parties have, and which course of action best respects those rights?
  3. Which course of action treats everyone the same, except where there is a morally justifiable reason not to, and does not show favoritism or discrimination?
  4. Which course of action advances the common good?
  5. Which course of action develops moral virtues?

This method, of course, does not provide an automatic solution to moral problems. It is not meant to. The method is merely meant to help identify most of the important ethical considerations. In the end, we must deliberate on moral issues for ourselves, keeping a careful eye on both the facts and on the ethical considerations involved.

Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer