Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Let’s Discuss Ethics

Note: Here's the note with all the comments, which obsolete some of the opinions presented here:!/note.php?note_id=10150229119843506

In this note, I originally went with the idea of moral vs. immoral. However, as Corinna and Dan pointed out in the comments, morals are imposed from without, while ethics are considered from within. So, it's fairly accurate to think of ethics as moral philosophy- morals reached via reason. So, I went through the note and changed words accordingly (hopefully the changes aren’t too glitchy). Thanks for the constructive feedback.


In my last note, I asked everyone to address the morality of a series of actions. If you look at the responses, there’s a pretty wide range of opinions. Feel free to go back to that thread to contribute, debate, or discuss.

So, what do I think about this? To start, I probably should have gone with “ethics” instead of “morals” in the original note, so we’ll be jumping trains for this entry.

Anyhow, my view of ethics is socially based. Unethical actions, briefly defined as “wrong conduct, as defined by a set of reasoned principles”,  can only exist in the context of other people; there has to be someone else who’s being wronged. You can’t act wrongly within or against yourself- we all possess ourselves, and thus it is not wrong for us to treat ourselves however we choose, *unless* doing so negatively affects another person, whom we do not possess, and therefore cannot treat as we please.

But, this is where things get tricky: how often do we act without affecting other people, even with self-directed actions? For example- in a vacuum, suicide is totally fine. But, how often does one exist in a vacuum? More realistically, let’s throw in some loved ones who are relying on you, and maybe some major job responsibilities. We’ve got a serious problem here- killing yourself is an unethical choice. But, let’s try another scenario, involving late stage brain cancer, high pain, low quality of life, and no career or family obligations. Let’s say you have family members, but given your level of suffering, it would be unreasonable for them to ask you to stay alive. Here, killing yourself is clearly a ethical choice.

The above examples illustrate that the key to discerning the ethicality of most actions is context. Does this action negatively affect someone? If so, who? Directly or indirectly? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Is there a greater good at stake?

Another thing to point out is that a negative physical or psychological outcome does not determine the ethicality of an action. If you are working on a construction site, and seriously injure one of your co-workers by dropping something heavy on him, did you act unethically? No. Intent is more important- what are you trying to accomplish, and what foreseeable implications would your actions have?

Finally, consent is a key factor concerning potentially damaging behaviors. If a person consents to a risky action which could potentially harm him or her, in order to gain the benefits of the action, then the actor can proceed without worrying about acting unethically. Granted, implications of that potential harm in relation to others outside of this action should be taken into account, as well as the perceived chance of damage, as well as the magnitude of that damage. So, three questions: Who else could be affected by the potential damage resulting from this action? What are the chances that this action will result in damage? If damaging occurs, how great will it be? Yes, it’s complicated.

This is all coming straight from head to paper, so it’s still a fairly rough conception of ethics, but it’s a reasonable start. Here’s a quick review of important points to consider:

1. The wronging of others
2.  The context of the action
3. The intent of the action
4. The consent of those facing potential harm

Great. Now, let’s look at the items I presented in the previous post:


1. physician-assisted suicide to alleviate extreme pain (doctor prescribes pills, patient ingests pills)

Ethical in most cases. In select situations, it might be important to endure a bit longer to accomplish something before dying, but these are rare instances.

2. receiving the services of a prostitute

Sometimes ethical. Cases for unethicality: you know the prostitute is a sex slave (trafficked), you are violating the trust of a significant other. But, if the prostitute is a worker, and you have no relational obligations to *not* pay for sex services—ethical.

3. consentual sex, with responsible use of birth control, before marriage

Always ethical, assuming both parties are fit to give informed consent (e.g., they are reasonably informed of STD risks, they’re not psychologically impaired, etc.).

4. child abuse

Never ethical. Granted, abuse is never a good thing, but with children in particular, they *really* can’t be held responsible for their actions, nor can they consent to being harmed.

5. gay adoption, assuming responsible adults

Always ethical- if the parents, regardless of sexual orientation (the psych literature speaks to this), are responsible and loving, the kid will benefit.

6. high-risk downhill mountain biking as a hobby

Sometimes ethical. In this case, the key is consideration of context: who would suffer if I were to die from a high-risk, optional behavior? If you’re single, and your parents aren’t relying on you for support, then it’s no big deal. Have a spouse? If she consents to your downhill biking, then that’s fine- she’s smart enough to know the risks. Have kids? No getting around this one- kids can’t comprehend the damage of losing a father at an early age. So, they can’t consent to the action, making it clearly unethical.

7. incest (tricky, but assume the sterility of one person, to avoid this leading to abortion discussions)

Sometimes ethical. In this case, there has to be consent on both ends, as well as low expectations of psychological damage on both ends. Yes, there’s an obvious ick factor for most people, but that has nothing to do with ethicality.

8. using your nation's flag to clean your toilet

Ethical in all cases that assume privacy. I could conceive of cases in which it might be unethical to do so in public, but I wrote this item with an assumption of privacy (hey, bathrooms!).

9. not apologizing to someone for a clear transgression

I’m going to say almost always ethical. There are probably a few situations in which not apologizing would be justified, but generally speaking, people should own up to their mistakes- apologizing can repair emotional damage caused by the transgression, so you owe it to the person to say sorry.

10. feeding dead people to animals (assume no disease problems, and the given consent of the dead people beforehand)

With the assumptions above, always ethical. I threw this in for two reasons: one, because it’s a disgusting thought for some, and two, because I think it’s a cool idea, since burying or cremating people is wasteful in comparison (edited; credit to Aimee for helping me with it).

11. thinking about killing someone (no justifiable reason)

Always ethical. Having thoughts does not harm others, even if the thoughts are about harming others. I think we all have a responsibility to hold each other accountable for bad actions, but bad thoughts? Not really a problem, until they lead to action.

12. using pornography while in a relationship with a romantic partner

This is not the item included in the previous post; I should have been clearer. Anyhow—sometimes ethical.  If your partner has no problem with you using porn, then by all means, carry on. But, if your partner objects on the grounds of self-esteem issues, feeling unwanted, etc., then it would be unethical to simply carry on without discussing the problem.

13. being a super-special-awesome helpful, honest, hardworking, wonderful person (don't overthink this one)

Not gonna overthink this- always ethical.


Obviously, this is just one perspective of many (philosophy has a field day describing and defining ethics), but I think it’s a fairly functional one. Feel free to discuss, argue, etc., and I’ll try to respond.

Take care,


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