What makes something ethical or unethical and how do you know if something is right or wrong?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Since you have placed this under “Business,” I will answer it in the context of business ethics.  It is, in all cases, very hard to put forth a universal criterion that tells us what is right or wrong in all situations.  Therefore, this is a very tough question to answer.

I would argue that, in the area of business, an action is “right” or “ethical” if there is no real likelihood that it will harm innocent people.  There are two parts to this criterion, both of which must be explained. 

First, I say that ethical actions should not harm “innocent” people.  I say this because, in business, almost every action that a person takes could well harm someone else.  In our capitalist system, a business owner’s actions are often meant to increase his or her market share, typically at the expense of a competitor.  Businesses are trying to outcompete one another and, thereby, to hurt one another all the time.  Competition is not (in our view as a society) unethical.  However, if we take actions that hurt innocent people (customers, people who live near our factories, taxpayers, etc) we are acting unethically.

Second, I say that there must be “no real likelihood” of such harm.  When acting, people have to think about the likely consequences of their actions.  It is not ethical to refuse to think about the consequences and, therefore, to be able to say that you did not foresee any negative impacts of your actions.  In order to be ethical, we have to think about what results are likely to come from our actions.  If some of the likely results would hurt innocent people, we must not take that action.  If, however, we truly cannot foresee likely harms to innocent people, our actions are ethical.

Thus, ethical actions in business (in my view) are those that are not likely to hurt innocent people.