What is ethics?

If you’re struggling to answer this, you’re not alone. Despite considering ethics a crucial part of our lives in a variety of different contexts, a common definition of the word can elude us.

Most of us are comfortable labelling products, people, and businesses ‘ethical’ and ‘unethical’. So, let’s get a clear understanding of these titles mean.

Here’s an easy way of breaking ethics down into four areas.



The question

Ethics is a process of reflection. We ‘do ethics’ every time we try to answer the question, “What should I do?”

Ethics doesn’t discount emotional responses but it does require us to be thoughtful when weighing up a decision. Rather than acting on instinct alone, ethics asks us to reasonably consider our options. An assessment of what we know, what we assume and what we believe, helps us choose a course of action most consistent with what we think is good and right.

While ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with what’s right and wrong, it doesn’t seek to produce a list of rules to apply to all people at all times. Two people can both think ‘ethically’ about a situation and come up with very different decisions about what they should do.

Turning to an ethicist to get a definite answer on what’s right and wrong misses the point. Reflecting on the question “What should I do?” helps us discover and live by our values, principles, and purpose.

Values – ‘What’s good’

When faced with a decision, every person is going to choose the option they believe is best. It could be self-destructive, mean, or foolish – but the decision maker will always see more good in the option they settle on.

When you decide what you want to eat for lunch, you’ll consider a range of possibilities and choose one you think is good. Sometimes you might define good as ‘healthy’, other times as ‘tasty’, sometimes as ‘cheap’ and occasionally as a combination of all of them. Once you’ve got your definition down, you’re going to pick the option you think is most good.

Values are what help us define what’s good. Some of these will be unique to the individual but many values are held in common by cultures all around the world because they speak to the basic needs of human beings.

Freedom, safety, community, education, and health are all valued by people from very different walks of life. Each culture may express their values differently – norms of friendship will differ between cultures – but the basic value is still the same.

We tend to value lots of different things and prioritise them differently depending on our circumstances. In our youth we might rank excitement and fun over safety but later in life those values could shift in the other direction. This reflects changing beliefs about how much good is preserved by each value and how much they matter to us.

Principles – ‘What’s right’

Knowing what’s ‘good’ is an important step in ethical decision-making, but most of us believe there are better and worse ways of getting the things we value. We value honesty but are still careful with how we give criticism to colleagues – even if it would be more honest to be blunt.

This is the role of principles – they help us identify the right or wrong way to achieve the things we value. Some common examples are:

The Golden Rule: Treat other people the way you’d like to be treated.

Universality: Don’t ask other people to act in a way you wouldn’t be willing to act in the same situation.

Machiavellian: I’ll do what works and gets me what I want, no matter how it affects other people.

Notice how these principles are value-neutral? This means you can use them no matter what your values are – some may even seem unethical to you. Different people want to be treated in different ways – some gently and others with ‘tough love’ – but everyone can use the Golden Rule as a way to guide their decisions.

Purpose – picking your values and principles

There are a huge amount of values and principles to choose between. Many of us don’t choose at all, sticking with the systems we inherited from family, culture, or religion.

If we were to choose, which ones would we decide to act on? Which ones would we care about most? This is where understanding our defining purpose is important.

Some philosophers believe every person has the same purpose – like flourishing, maximising wellbeing for others, or fulfilling their obligations. Others think people should be able to find or choose their own purpose.

What our purpose should be is hard to determine. Organisations have an easier run of it – they’re usually designed with a purpose in mind and can choose principles and values accordingly.

For example, news organisations exist to inform the public. From this they can find values like truth and integrity as well as principles like impartiality and rigorous checking of sources.

Some individuals have thought about purpose in terms of ‘vocations’ – the types of activities we commit our lives to. These can include professional roles but can also include things like parenting, volunteer work, or self-improvement.

The initial question, values, principles and purpose form the building blocks of our ethical thinking. They don’t provide us with easy answers to the question ‘What should I do?’, but they help us to understand what a good answer might look like.