What Are Ethics Anyway?

by Justin Nafziger

I have observed that people confuse various adjacent terms and ideas as equivalent.

Belief and conviction for example, while they may overlap are not one and the same. Another oft misconstrued association is mixing morality, integrity and ethics. To be sure, they do interact heavily, but one and the same they are not (my personal definitions follow, but while the terms are subjective the concepts I think, are solid. “A rose by any other name…” )

Morality is a broad strokes sense of things. “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” or “an ye harm none, do what ye will.”

Ethics are the weights and measures of morality faced with the tribulations of practicality. What do you do when everyone, or no one, in a situation is in the right/wrong? For example, when two parties are equally ethical but their well-being is in opposition?

Integrity, simply put, is the resilience of will to consistently act upon the resolutions of ones own morality and ethics.

The “devil” is in the dogma (to retool a phrase). Dogmatic systems of belief fail, a key example of that is they choose to prescribe all three of these aspects forging them into one rigid code of conduct, which in it’s rigidity contradicts itself when applied to reality rather than the abstract. They prescribe moral considerations within largely binary systems and seek to use punitive means combined with intimidation and occasional emotional bribery to constrain adherence. (For those keeping score, organized religions are far from the only dogmatic institutions present in contemporary society and the secular bodies aren’t exempt from this analysis either).

A personal example of concepts in action; I do not support or condone dishonesty. I make a point not to lie and even strive actively not to deceive. This could be described as an ethical or moral stance but it is not striving to be perched upon the “moral high ground” that motivates me. It is simple realism. If I am to have and maintain the type of interpersonal dynamics which enrich my experience, then trust and loyalty must be present, and dishonesty is corrosive to both (outright lies even more so).

Hence, while I cannot abide lies within my personal context, nor suffer them to be directed at me, I’ve no real desire or motivation to judge nor condemn those actions when taken/directed outside of my own context. A dogmatic person asks, “Is this action/thought right or wrong?” I would contend that an ethical person (as I defined it above) would ask “What are the implications of this thought/action?” And an individual of integrity would further ask, “Played out in the long-term, is this a choice I can sustain and are these effects I wish to maintain/have as my baseline?”

The distinction of those choices is nuanced, but the longer span ramifications are manifold.

Authors note: I have intentionally kept this as general as possible, details of ethical behavior are very personal and it is my intention to discuss the practice of self-aware ethics not to “stealthily” attempt to inculcate others with my own ethical code, I will leave such behavior for the dogmatists who cannot find the strength of conviction to stand with their own conscience and so attempt to suborn the will of others in an attempt to mask their own insecurities.

About the Author: Justin Nafziger

Hello everyone, I’m much better at self-analysis than self-description; besides, you’ll get an idea about my views in reading what I post. I’ve grown up traveling, and in all the time I’ve spent seeing new places, people and things, I’ve come to one clear conclusion: real, meaningful moments and interactions don’t have to be permanent to be valuable, but they do have to be honest or they’ll be leeched of meaning. Oh, and that ethics (aka integrity in action) is a very personal proposition and cannot be successfully codified or dogmatized.

“There are as many truths as there are drops of water in the ocean and grains of sand on the beach.”

Reality is collaborative, truth is personal.

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3 thoughts on “What Are Ethics Anyway?

  1. So, here’s a blog I read which I find interesting.

    I profoundly disagree with a number of the authors conclusions (at least taken at face value). For example; “What I will not do, what I refuse to do, is believe that everyone has their own truth, that it is all relative. Because I’m not uncertain on that one-I know that is the wrong way to do it. The lazy, selfish way.”

    Concluding that permitting individual understandings of/paths too truth is lazy or selfish is to my understanding a profoundly egotistical act, for in assessment there seems to be no way claiming to have “The Truth” could be otherwise as it dismisses both nature and nurture in favor of a somewhat mob mentality on ethics in the binary sense of “there is only right and wrong, and we know what’s right”. This attitude exposes one of the most profound problems with dogmatic thought, the presumption of superiority. The merit or import of an action is not evaluated by context, by motive, nor even by repercussions (let alone how that action may directly effect the dogmatist) it is evaluated on a binary and zero sum scale “you’re either with us or you’re against us”. There’s no room for diversity or individuality in a world where everyone who doesn’t submit their freedom of choice to the norms of your chosen in group is morally/spiritually “wrong”.

    The linked piece is interesting, the voice is pretty clear and the ideas are largely not two-dimensional. I’d enjoy a conversation with it’s author even, or perhaps especially, on the subjects we do not see 100% eye to eye on. However such a conversation is not really possible in the face of such irrevocable presumption, here’s another quote
    “He’d say he felt one way, and then after looking up statistics about it on his phone, or a few more days to think it over, he’d have changed his mind. I felt that if he could go back and forth between how he felt about a topic, it was reduced to just his “feelings”, which didn’t really matter much in the quest for truth now did they?”

    Do you see the problem? The willingness to adapt ones assessment of an event or act in light of learning more about it is cast as some form of mental or moral weakness which somehow diminishes any/all perspectives that individual holds into mere emotional reactionary behavior. How does one hold a constructive meaningful discourse with an individual who’s response to proactive self education (and incorporation of the results of the same) is to denigrate the perspective of someone who does it into a dismissible category of “that’s just your opinion man” ((mis)quoted from The Big Lebowski).

    This is why the dogmatic of thought can become so problematic a phenomenon, their conclusions are inherently prejudicial in the most literal sense, indeed they essentially allow room for no other type of conclusion.

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