Ethics Questions and Answers

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What are personal ethical issues and how can they be resolved?

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Doug Carroll, Ed.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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bookM.S. from Georgia Southern University

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The word "ethics" is derived from the Greek "ethos," meaning character; "morals" comes from the Latin "mores," involving customs. When combined, they give us our modern definition of ethics, which is a principle or set of principles which governs a person’s behavior in a particular situation. In philosophy, ethics includes how personal behavior affects society. In our modern times, however, we tend to think of ethical behavior from our own perspective. We believe that we do in private is of no concern to others. Our behavior is personal, private, and not public. How we choose to live our life is not the concern of anyone else. Our own ethical values (as long as our conduct is not illegal, which is a different issue) are not to be judged or critiqued by others, because they are singularly owned. The distinction between these two philosophical definitions may help to frame what personal ethical issues are and how a person responds to a challenge to their personal ethical framework.

Personal ethical issues boil down to what a person believes is right and what a person believes is wrong. Ethical issues do not necessarily imply a moral dilemma, in modern times. For example, you can drive on the highway fifty miles per hour over the posted speed limit and rationalize you are in a hurry. You may pose a danger to other drivers if traffic is heavy, but if there is no traffic, what is your moral dilemma? If you hold to an ethical standard, your conduct is only your concern; excessive speeding poses no ethical issue. If you stick to an ethical standard that, despite how you may feel about the law and regardless of how much of a hurry you are in, breaking the law sets a bad example and is inconsistent with how citizens should act, then you create an ethical dilemma by speeding. If the situation changes, a different ethical standard may apply. Suppose, in the speeding example, you have a severely injured person in your car that needs immediate medical attention. Your only recourse is to speed to the nearest hospital. Breaking the law, in this case, may not violate your ethical principle of obeying the law, because life is in jeopardy and speeding is necessitated to save someone’s life. Some term this type of ethical behavior as "situational ethics": modifying a personal ethical standard when the situation requires a different response.

Personal ethical issues are only resolvable if you have a philosophical framework from which to judge the ethical decisions you make. If you believe in private, personalized ethics where the positive or negative consequences of a behavior are borne by you alone with no regard to the impact on society, then resolving your conflicts requires you to answer this question: what is in my own best interest? On the other hand, if you believe in public ethics, where the positive or negative consequences of your ethical decision broadly affect others, then resolving your conflicts requires you to answer this question: what is in the best interest of all concerned?

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Ethical issues are related to standards of conduct and moral judgment.  Personal ethical issues relate to a person's individual standards of behavior and moral conduct.  For example, if someone were a referee in an important soccer match, would it be ethical behavior to give a player a red card, removing the player from the game, when the referee did not really see what happened and disagrees with the referee who did?  Would it be ethical to turn in a paper you have not written but received from a buddy who was giving it to you because you were behind in your work, and then claim credit for the work?  To resolve ethical issues, many believe that the schools can teach character education which presents ethical dilemmas for students to discuss and resolve.  Parents are also responsible for the ethical development of their children by demonstrating ethical behavior and explaining the WHY behind their decisions.  Each person is eventually faced with their own choices in their ethics and must choose for themselves which is more important:  the convenience of avoiding ethics when making choices or truly living according to the code they have chosen.

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