What do we mean when we say ‘ethics’ or talk of things as being ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’? And how is this different from ‘morals’ and ‘morality’? What is the game of ethics about?
Let us begin with my standard premise that to ask what a word means, is to ask how it is used (from Wittgenstein). Both ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ refer to the same basic concept but, alas, so vague are the boundaries of this region that the two terms are not guaranteed to be synonymous in any one individual, nor for any distinctions made to be shared by a third party. However, we can in broad strokes say that the general flavour of ‘ethics’ is the study of the relevant phenomena, while the flavour of ‘morals’ is rather the practice of it.
A person’s ethics (or morality) consist in general of their values and customs, in particular those which are the most emotionally charged. Value terms of almost all kinds can be associated to ethics – good and evil, right and wrong, duty (or responsibility) , sensible or stupid, cruel or kind, entertaining or dull. Which value judgments are in play depends essentially on whatever criterion has been chosen as the focus of the ethics in question - the ethical criteria - while how those value judgments are interpreted depends upon the individual’s frame of reference (their beliefs or culture).
Ethical situations (that is, circumstances where the game of ethics can be played) entail an agent acting in a particular manner with certain outcomes. One can build a system of ethics from any element of this situation; centring upon the person in agent-focused approaches (such as virtue ethics, represented by Aristotle), upon the actions taken in rights-focused or rules-focussed approaches (such as deontology or duty ethics, represented by Kant) or upon the consequences of the actions in outcome-focused approaches (such as consequentialist ethics, which include utilitarianism, usually traced back to Hume). Since nothing else is involved in an ethical situation but people acting, actions taken, and outcomes that result, this should be a full description, although the number of ways these three elements can be interpreted (and entangled!) leads to infinite possible ethical systems.
To accuse someone of being ‘unethical’ can mean in essence three different things. Firstly, it may mean that the person has no system of ethics at all, which is usually referred to as amorality. Alternatively, it may mean that we are accusing them of not following their own system of ethics, which is usually referred to as hypocrisy – but which requires us to know their ethical criteria at the very least before we can reasonably comment. Alternatively, ‘unethical’ may be in reference to a deviation from a particular shared (cultural) system of ethics, which is to say, the commonly perceived congruence of a community’s ethical system. This is usually referred to as immorality in respect of that system of ethics, but if the individual in question does not embrace the ethics in question, such allegations are simply an expression of dislike towards the person thus accused (unless they also happen to be illegal).
To be ‘ethical’, therefore, is the contrary state of affairs and has three elements: to have a system of ethics (and thus avoid amorality), to practice and adhere to that system of ethics (and thus avoid immorality) and to make your ethical position sufficiently clear to other people (and thus avoid hypocrisy).
The question that lays before you, then, is nothing more than this: are you ethical?
This piece caused some confusion, which was to a certain extent deliberate, but did not pan out as hoped. I intentionally set out this piece with some legerdemain at the end to obfuscate the definition of 'ethical' in the hope that this would provoke debate. Alas, it didn't happen. Here is why this piece does not, in fact, deliver a useful definition of ethical.
Firstly, I set out a definition to 'unethical', which has three parts. Then I implied that the definition of 'ethical' must contain the same three elements. In effect, I invite the reader to invert 'unethical' to get 'ethical'. But this isn't actually guaranteed to work! When we talk of the meaning of a word being how it is used, we can't use logical manipulations to acquire meaning - certainly, one cannot take a family resemblance word and expect to manipulate it logically.
Here's an example. Suppose I define 'untalented' to be a list of things one would have to be poor at: 'poor at playing musical instruments, poor at drawing, poor at poetry...' etc. If I expect to negate this to get a meaning of 'talented' I will be in a strange place - as then 'talented' means 'good at playing musical instruments, and drawing, and poetry...' etc. The result is nonsense! (Although in this instance, we might rescue the meaning by using 'or' instead of 'and' in the result...)
In essence, then, the implied definition of 'ethical' in this piece was something of a straw man to invite criticism. I was hoping in doing so to tease out a stronger definition of ethical. I apologise for the confusion thus caused!
So the alternative question to the one mentioned above is: what does it mean to be 'ethical'?