What do we really mean by “ethics”—and why does it matter?

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Ethics, morality, law: how they relate to each other, and to you.

The word “ethics” is thrown around a lot these days. But in modern discussions, the word can have different meanings in different situations. If we look carefully, we can see that it takes on different nuances according to the context and the perspective of the speaker. Let’s look at the different perspectives of ethics, so we can see the usefulness and necessity of ethical principles in our personal and social life.

1. Ethics as an institution

Ethics is a normative structure for the practices and principles of society, characterized by its prescriptiveness. The goal of ethics as a normative social institution is to connect the normative aspects with people’s desires, so as to guarantee the necessary degree of social cooperation for survival, for well-being, and for the self-fulfillment of the members of society. In other words, it is a system of established “institutionalized” principles that tell us how we ought to behave as members of society in order to best promote our own good and that of society as a whole, seeking to make evident the relationship between the norms and the desired outcome of well-being.

2. Ethics and law

The general goal of ethics described above is related to another great normative social institution: law. Law distinguishes itself from ethics in (at the least) the following ways: law is valid for the citizens of a specified territory, without necessarily pretending to be a universal principle; it prescribes a material punishment for transgressors, rather than just saying what is right or wrong; under law, only a judge is authorized to apply the law and to hand down a sentence; and juridical norms are respected by citizens out of fear of punishment, not for the intrinsic value of doing what is right.

3. Ethics and morals

Although in common use these two terms are more or less considered to be synonyms (the Greek and Latin root words ethos and mores designate the same thing: habits and customs), they have different nuances. The word ethics is generally used when speaking of principles, whereas the word morality refers more to someone’s personal convictions. When dealing with morality, everyone — and not just experts in morals — can approve or disapprove, without engaging in an ethical reflection. Ethics can be descriptive, normative, or applied; that is to say, an ethical reflection can describe behavior, give it guidelines, or focus above all on the specific application of ethical theories.

4. The universality of moral judgment

Moral conduct should be justifiable from a universal point of view. This statement is a generalization of the “golden rule” (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “love your neighbor as yourself”), which invites us to “put ourselves in other people’s shoes.” An ethical principle cannot be properly justified in terms of particular, special interests (egoism, ethnic or racial considerations, sex, species, etc.); it must be equally applicable for everyone, anywhere.

From a moral point of view, it is irrelevant whether the beneficiary of a given action is myself, or you, or our race (or ethnic group, or species); I cannot act in a way that privileges one group over others for personal advantage, or for reasons not substantially relevant to the actual issue at hand. What matters in morality is, properly speaking, the possibility of transcending the selfish interests of groups and factions.

These brief reflections remind us that personal good and common good are related. We cannot favor one to the detriment of the other. The good and development of our society will be sustainable if our personal good is sustainable, and consequently, the good behavior of every human being is a necessary condition for guaranteeing a future of progress for ourselves and for future generations.

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