Wrong and right (or ethical and unethical) are ubiquitous concepts in society. Ethical consciousness pervades our laws, family dynamics, inter-personal relationships and workplace environments. Almost anyone could provide an example of ethical or unethical behavior in the aforementioned contexts, and yet defining exactly why something is ethical or unethical can be difficult.
To complicate matters, ethical determinations differ between individuals and groups. A quick look at ongoing legal and political debate concerning capital punishment, abortion, immigration, marijuana legalization or one of a thousand other issues is sufficient to demonstrate the variety of ethics interpretations adopted by individuals and groups.
Clearly there isn’t a universally acknowledged wrong and right, and yet we do universally acknowledge wrong and right. Where do our ethics come from? And what do they accomplish?
Ethical origins; ends and means
Ethical instillation begins when we are infants. Parents, teachers, peers and mass media persistently assert the badness or goodness of various behaviors, often with accompanying praise or chastisement. Behavioral appraisals are launched according to the appraiser’s established ethical notions, notions just as likely to have been adopted as intentionally developed.
Where do these ethical standards come from?
Ethical frameworks are often understood as either transcendental or pragmatic in origin. Transcendental ethics hold that wrong and right are determined by a god, gods, spirits or other mystical entities. Pragmatic ethics hold that wrong and right are socially defined to further cultural agendas, identities or values. Types of transcendental ethics might include Christian, Islamic or Hindu; types of pragmatic ethics might include humanitarian, utilitarian or patriotic.
The difference between transcendental and pragmatic ethical systems isn't as stark as some might believe. Socrates famously asked Euthyphro, who was planning to prosecute his own father for violating godly values, to pinpoint the source of his pious ethics.
Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? -Socrates
The question Socrates posed is an interesting one. If god(s) didn’t have our best interest in mind, would their actions still be good? If god were a torturing, destructive god, would torture and destruction be good? Or do godly persons consider god(s) to be good because they save us from hell, comfort us, give us joy; in effect because they benefit us?
It’s worth noting that equating god(s) with goodness is perhaps most prevalent in Western cultures. A variety of world spiritual traditions celebrate devious or even ill intentioned deities.
Regardless of their origin, in practice ethical frameworks aim to benefit groups of persons who share some (or many) values in common.
Whether transcendental or pragmatic, ethical frameworks generally consist of one or more directives as well as practical interpretations of those directives. Directives and their interpretations can be thought of as ends and means respectively. A directive might be something like Love thy God or Do not steal. A practical interpretation might be Respect appointed daily prayer times, or Do not download illegal copies of movies or music.
An interesting aspect of practical interpretations is their variety between individuals and groups. Both transcendental and pragmatic ethics are implemented in society via interpretation, meaning that the spirit and letter of the law often exist in a one to many relationship. A single ethical directive might have several interpretations and implementations. For example, two individuals or groups might agree that Do not steal is a valid ethical directive, while disagreeing that Do not download illegal copies of movies or music is a valid interpretation of that directive.
Interpretive variety is responsible for the amount of chapters, sects, denominations or other distinct groups which hold similar or identical texts as representing or mandating their various core values.
Knowing your ethics
Ethics are inherently projected into the social arena. They deal with prescribing ideal behaviors for group members and intend to achieve a common aim — whether that aim be glorifying god, protecting social freedoms, respecting human life, avoiding pain and suffering or any number of other things. Our ethical leanings are our standards of right behavior not just for ourselves, but for those around us. Hence the most widely accepted ethical directives (do not kill, do not steal, etc) are those from which the most beneficiaries stand to gain.
Vetted ethics are ethics that scale.
Know thyself. -The Oracle at Delphi
The ancient Greeks were fond of the maxim Know thyself, attributed to the Oracle at Delphi, the mouthpiece of the god Apollo. The Greeks were zealously democratic, and prone to public investigation of persons suspected of undermining the state. Such investigations took place in large courts or public centers, wherein the accused explained themselves to an audience of several hundreds of their peers, all of whom would vote on their case and decide their fate. Know thyself was a constant reminder to observe, understand and govern one’s own behaviors in the context of state duty, family duty and duty to the gods - in the context of community.
Knowing why we hold our ethical opinions and not just what those opinions are strengthens our position within an ethical community. Investigating our ethics with careful, determined reason makes them more communicable to others, bolsters their resonance and authority within our own lives, and clarifies our ideals and aims.
An ethical attitude creates a personal obligation. The very act of classifying behaviors as wrong or right is an open admission that we do, in fact, operate within an ethical framework. That admission is inherently an assertion of some desirable social ends and a prescription of some particular means by which to realize those ends. Such an assertion will not stand inert, it exists as duty realized or duty shirked, but it exists as duty. In assuming an ethical perspective we admit our own aspiration towards a social end and assume a portion of the responsibility in taking up the appropriate means.
While ethics exist in and for the social sphere, their implications of responsibility are, in contrast, quite personal. In any shared endeavor it behooves each member of the group to attend to the task they are best suited for. And who could be better suited for governing our own behaviors than our selves?
How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? -Jesus Christ
Of all things in this world, that which we are capable of exercising the most direct control over is ourselves. Christ’s counsel was perhaps less of a chiding criticism than it was clear thinking pragmatism - speck and plank don’t indicate the size of the issue, but the respective ease with which it is grasped. Of the two, the plank is simply the easier to get ahold of.