1.3 Your thoughts
What I have not done yet, however, is to say what ethics actually is! Before doing that I would like to give you an opportunity to collect your own initial thoughts on the matter and introduce some further ideas. Let's start with your reflection.
In your Learning Journal jot down a short paragraph (about 40–50 words) on what you think ethics is.
This question provides an ideal cue for group discussion. Indeed, in our 2008 trial we heard some really interesting suggestions from participants, and I've selected some examples for you:
Participant answer 1: Ethics is the study of the good leading to living the virtuous life; it's the Buddhist concept of ‘right conduct’ and the Te conduct in the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tse. Ethics derives from the Greek word ethos meaning ‘character’.
Participant answer 2: Ethics is about balancing between rights and wrongs, rights and responsibilities, individual and society – the underlying concept of ‘good’ and how we can achieve the best possible balance of good for everyone.
Participant answer 3: Ethics provides frameworks for individuals to determine a moral stance and argue their moral stance and examine the moral stances of others. Ethics is the individual's code of conduct, influencing their experiences and perceptions and mediated by the values and their culture.
Naturally these answers are articulated in different styles, but the word ‘good’ appears explicitly in all of them, which is particularly interesting. Did you include the term in your own definition as well?
Having now read the activity comments for Activity 1 you might raise a number of further questions. Consider an interesting one: Is ‘wrong’ the opposite of ‘right’?
When you try and weigh up ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ you wind up in all sorts of difficulties. Let me give you an example taken from my professional experience. A while ago I talked to some young engineering graduates working on the notorious terminal five at Heathrow. They enjoyed designing things but particularly disliked meetings with architects. They reported feeling ill-prepared for discussions with other professionals, and said they couldn't see why they often failed to get their point across.
The issue was that the two groups of professionals, the engineers and the architects, evaluated things in very different ways. What each thought were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ outcomes were different. The technologists were worried about reliability, heat dissipation and so on, whilst the architects were worried about space. When they tried to justify things, the engineers’ justifications didn't work with the architects, and the architects’ justifications didn't work with the engineers. They had different ideas of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were, and they also argued and rationalised their thoughts in different ways.
This example illustrates the point that there is no single ‘right’ way of doing things. Indeed you can often be faced with incommensurable ‘goods’ and ‘bads’, and it is not at all obvious as to how you can unify them, how you can compare them. It may often not be possible to figure out a single, ‘correct’ way that will reconcile very different ways of assessing thinking and arguing. This is indeed something that professional ethicists are very worried about and refer to as aggregation, and they are particularly interested in the consequences of aggregating things in particular ways. I'll discuss this in more detail later on in the course.