Let’s get back to basics — everyday ethics.
I began writing this column to take ethics out of the classroom and into the wider world. My model was Socrates, the father of ethics, who went into the city where he lived to engage in dialogue with others. It was Socrates who gave us the most lasting definition of ethics — how best to live.
Ethics is fundamentally a practical philosophy. It seeks to help individuals make the best decisions they can for themselves, consistent with their beliefs and values.
There are various ethical traditions that offer road maps on how best to live.
The early Greek philosopher Aristotle said we should seek to live a life of moderation. He called that the Golden Mean. Think of the extremes of any value, take courage as one. Courage to live is an ethical principle, but the extremes are what cause difficulty — being too risky or being too shy.
Aristotle said the best way to live a good life is to practice what you believe. In other words, if you want to be a compassionate person, you need to be kind to yourself and others as often as you can.
Other world ethical systems from the East and West offer guidance on making moral decisions. The most common principle is treating others as you wish to be treated or love your neighbor as yourself. This is called the Golden Rule.
When you have time to consider a pending decision, here are three areas to consider,
First, look at any existing rules or laws. By these standards would your decision be right or wrong? For example, thinking about whether or not to cheat on a test to get a higher grade is obviously a violation of school rules.
Second, look at issues of character. Would your decision fit your values and needs and those of others? Some might consider sacrificing themselves for the good of others, but that would not be good for you.
Third, examine the situation you are in. Sometimes the context in which you make a decision weighs heavily. A friend may ask you to lie to protect himself, and though as a general rule you don’t advocate telling lies, in this particular case that rule takes second to a higher one of protecting a friend.
Ethics is about making decisions, sometimes difficult ones. But a fundamental question to ask yourself is this one: Is what I am going to decide something I will regret later? Asking and answering this one, may clear things up.
John C. Morgan is a teacher and writer whose columns appear here weekly. Next week he writes about one of the key concepts of Western ethics, the categorical imperative.