Ethics for Everyone in Adoption: Background article Values and Ethics Trevor Jordan, PhD
What is ethics? Ethics can refer to the principles of conduct governing an individual or group; for example the ethics of a profession, such as medicine of law, or a field of activity such as business. Most standards of behaviour we seem to learn by habit. It is surprising that something so important as ethics is the subject of so little explicit reflection in our education system. Consequently, there are many common misconceptions about ethics. Some people, for example, think that ethics is about sexual morality, or that ethics is primarily about religion, and if you are not religious you do not have to worry about ethics, or that ethics only applies to personal behaviour. If we took our cue from appears in the media we could assume that ethics is only about 'neon light' issues such as abortion, euthanasia, cloning, or genetic engineering. Occasionally, if there has been a scandal, issues of ethics in government and business might be raised. Those who find ethics difficult picture it in one of two unattractive ways. Either ethics is about rigid rule-following, where everything is spelt out in black or white, or else it is about unsolvable dilemmas inhabited the grey areas of life. The latter problem was dealt with cleverly by the philosopher, G. E. Moore, who pointed out that just because there is twilight does not mean that there is not night and day. In the same way, just because there are grey areas in ethical life does not mean that there is not right and wrong. Part of the problem is that ethics has often been taught by discussing hard cases which promote debate and discussion. This makes ethics appear to be about lonely, sad people sitting in a corner contemplating unresolvable dilemmas. This picture does not capture the richness of what ethics is about in real life. Sometimes I may have to think through an ethical issues alone but, most of the time, ethics is about asking what ought we to do? It is a conversation. Ethics should prompt a discussion rather than a debate. What an obsession with hard cases, dilemmas and life and death issues misses is the fact that ethics is also involved in everyday issues. There are questions of right and wrong bound up with how we treat each other, issues of fairness, honesty and loyalty at work and in our personal relationships, and whenever we take others into account when we do things. An ethical issue is not defined by its content or subject matter, but by the type of questions it prompts, for example: Is this fair? Will anyone be harmed? Am I promoting the best for others and for myself? Am I being as good as I can be? Am I being responsible? How do I make up for past mistakes? Is this the caring thing to do? Would I like others to treat me in this way? Is this conduct appropriate to my role?
To decide what is right and wrong we draw upon our intuitions and we reason them through in the light of experience. Some of those experiences will be our own. We can also seek guidance from those who have travelled similar paths before us by drawing on the advice of mentors and the accumulated wisdom of our traditions.
Ethics and valuing Ethics is a type of value judgment. When we put a value on things, we are doing something very simple; we either give them a tick or a cross, indicating our approval or disapproval, or we rank them in an order. I like fishing, but you like netball. You like action movies but I prefer dramas. You like country music, but I prefer rock and roll. If I had to choose between my car and my girlfriend, I'd choose … Hmmm. I might value wealth, but would I sell my soul to get it? I might value getting good marks, but would I cheat in order to get them? Take the example of buying a car. There are various things we might value in our purchase, and each of us might rank them differently; for example, cost, colour, reliability, safety, economy, power, environmental friendliness, or just sheer fun potential. The way you order your values will determine whether you end up with a crazy purple Toyoto Rav4 or a brown Volvo. Not all these values are of the same type. Some, such as colour, design or accessories, might be aesthetic values; others are straightforward, economic values; though we might weigh initial purchase cost against resale value or running costs. Our concern for the environment or safety would definitely reflect moral values. Values do seem to be subjective; that is, they have a ‘to me’ and ‘to you’ quality about them. Are they merely another way of expressing our feelings, a fancy and impressive set of ‘snarl’ and ‘purr’ words? How do we deal with conflicting values, both our own and those conflicting with others? Ethics attempts to resolve value conflicts through reasoning together. Ethics is a conversation about our preferred courses of action and our willingness to act on them. Because ethics is a discussion, it is always about reasoning in a context. When thinking ethically we should pay close attention to both reasons and relationships. Reasons are involved in ethics because we ask each other to justify our choices, but not in the way we ask each other why we choose black jeans rather than blue jeans. More is at stake with ethical judgements. The choice between blue jeans and black jeans is not an ultimate kind of judgment; it is a relative judgment. We are not arguing that everyone ought to buy black jeans, and though we might feel deeply about it, we would not usually consider martyring ourselves to uphold such a choice. Ethical decisions, on the other hand, do seem to involve more ultimate kinds of choices; they involve a claim that not only ought I to choose this course of action, but you ought to consider it as well. Ethical reasons are also other-regarding; that is, they are not defined by self-interest alone, but take into account the interests of others. That is why ethics seeks to resolve values conflicts by reasoning together. So while we may have to do some of this reasoning ourselves, we can also draw on the experiences of others, our mentors and our traditions. Ethics and traditions Some argue that these traditions are only magnified forms of peer pressure. Certainly, we should not follow traditions slavishly and uncritically. The western philosophical framework th developed since the time of the Enlightenment (the 18 century) has stressed the ability of individuals to reason without the guidance of others. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) wrote, 'Have the courage to make use of your own understanding - is thus the motto of Enlightenment.' A noble sentiment and one with some truth in it. Nevertheless, we are not all university professors, as Kant was; most of us need to thoughtfully combine the courage to exercise self-government with the guidance of tradition. We need some roots so that we are not blown over in the wind. We appreciate the strengths that our cultural and religious traditions can give us so that we can make informed choices in a complex world, knowing that others will stand beside us. Our values, although our values, are always embedded in social relationships. By the time we reach an age when we are expected to be morally responsible for our actions (about age eight in western societies), we have already been shaped, for better or worse, by our families and our community. We may take many of our values from our mother or our father, or our brothers or sister, uncles or aunts. We might also be influenced by our teachers, sports
coaches, literary figures, or persons we admire in public life. Or we might be influenced by religious exemplars, by heroes in the stories and scriptures that surround our faith, or the religious leaders in our community. There is not always a one to one match of values; we might form our values in reaction to these figures. But that, too, is influence in its own way. Another way in which our values are embedded in social relationships is that we may might apply different values in different areas of our life; home, school, work, religious community, ethnic community, politics, or sport. We might highly value competitiveness on the sporting field, but value cooperation at work; or competition between schools, but cooperation within our school. We might order our values for our personal life in one way, but find that our job requires a differing ordering of priorities. (For example, excitement, wealth, comfort, forgiveness, competency, justice, cleanliness, compassion, courage, logic, happiness, beauty, equality)
Ethics and the law Morals have been codified into laws. When people act unethically they can expect the disapproval of their fellows, but when people break laws they can expect to be punished. The line between law and ethics is changing constantly. In times past, for example, people committing adultery could expect to be punished by the law. Today, adultery is still not considered to be ethical, but we would no longer put people in jail for it. Ethical issues have also moved into the area of law. For example, in the past, men often harassed women in the workplace with impunity, but in Australia today they would be breaking the law and would be subject to legal sanctions. For some people wrongdoing is covered by the law and the rest is what we can get away with. Such a view, however, is very short-sighted; not the least because ethics is an 'outlaw' phenomenon. Why? Because we need ethics to determine whether the laws that govern us are good laws or bad laws. We also need ethics to help us decide what to do in situations not covered by laws; for example, areas beyond the reach of the law, such as personal relationships, but also in those situations which are so new that the law has not yet caught up, such as biotechnology or the Internet. In a sense, ethics lies both under law as a foundation and floats above it as an external point of evaluation and critique. Without ethics, what is right and wrong would be simply what our society tell us is right or wrong at a particular moment in time. If we lived in a society that condoned slavery we would have to accept is as lawful and therefore right. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) campaigned against slavery on ethical grounds, motivated by his conservative religious beliefs. Thus, although at times religion, ethics and the law work together, both religion and ethics can be powerful agents for the critique and renewal of society. Even the conservative tendency of religion reflects this, as conserving values in the face of some changes may be very important. Group pressures do not necessarily subvert our attempts moral deliberation, and if we participate critically and constructively within our traditions, our individual freedom of thought and action can renew them and keep them relevant. Ethics and the common good We also have to be self-critical in the same constructive way. We need to be honest with ourselves, asking ourselves whether our concern for what we ought to do is truly otherregarding or whether our moral justifications mask self -interest. This is not always easy to determine this. If I am concerned about the environment, for example, is there not still an element of self-interest involved? I don't want to live in a polluted world. Ethical analysis, however, should not lead to paralysis. We do not need to be perfect before we act, but aware of our own imperfections even as we seek to change imperfect situations around us. How far ought our other-regard go? Most of us can comfortably extend our regard out from ourselves to include our family, or the group we identify with, be it an ethnic community, religion, state, or nation. But we may also be called upon to consider the common good; that
is, the desires of whole community not just our section of it, or ultimately even the good of humanity. How do we determine the common good? One view that we should be wary of is 'fifty-one percent-ism'; that is, the idea that the common good can defined simply according to the wishes of a simple majority. This is maths not ethics. It does not make clear that the common good ought to be a common good, not just a common preference. Another more acceptable view is that the common good ought to be defined in terms of common needs, those values and things we value which we need to affirm in order to lived together as a community. With these affirmed, each community can be left to pursue it own values. Tolerance, for instance, would be a key value in determining the common good, as would a respect for law, so long as all sections of the community had an equal potential to determine what those laws ought to be. We are now more conscious that respect for the common good may involve the protection of minorities. The western philosophical tradition Ethical frameworks can be understood in two important senses. Firstly, they can be seen as the structural frames which provides the foundation for an ethical way of life. They consist of the concepts which guide ethical decision-making as well as our assumptions about what it means to be human, about the nature of society and the physical world. Another way of understanding frameworks is as 'frames' through which we select out features of lived experience for ethical reflection. This is more like the framing of a camera viewfinder. It explains how frameworks can affect our ability to see ethical problems, or leave them outside the frame or unseen. As we have already seen, exercising individual judgement is an important aspect of the ethical framework of the western philosophical tradition. It is partly based on a frustration with religious frameworks, and an attempt to reframe ethical issues by leaving religious belief and practice outside the frame. This is because much Enlightenment thinking was reacting against the Civil War in England (1642-52) and the 30 Years War in Europe (1618-48), between Protestants and Catholics. If religion had become a problem, a return to reason might be a solution. It is important to realise, then, that the modern philosophical framework is itself a tradition, rooted in this particular context. It partly explains why the western philosophical tradition has tended to focus on applying universal moral theories to the messiness of particular situations and problems. This usually involves stripping those situations of all their detail, so they can be understood in terms of the theory. Compared to religious frameworks, the philosophers' frameworks seem more like analytical tools than ways of life. Reasons and intuitions One of the consequences of this abstract approach is that moral philosophers have been prone to using hypotheticals, stories that are not real but raise interesting problems. Lack of reality often makes hypotheticals boring; particularly if overused. Nevertheless, the following two hypotheticals are instructive. The first is called 'transplant'. Imagine you are a doctor in the emergency department of a hospital. Three patients are in urgent need of organ transplants. You know a recent arrival is an itinerant man who has no relatives and no friends. He has been diagnosed with a terminal condition which will definitely end his life in the next week. Should you kill the man in order to use his organs to save three lives? Most of us would find this shocking. Even though we could save three lives, our intuition is that it would not be the right thing to do. In this case, we would be directly violating a principle, or duty, that we ought not to kill another human being, even if a greater good may come of it. The second hypothetical is called 'trolley'. Imagine you are in charge of the switches that control the points at a railway intersection. A freight locomotive is out of control, and is heading down the track towards the points. On one track, there is a lone repairman; on the other, there are three repairmen. The runaway train will kill one or the other. What would you do?
Most people's intuition is to divert the train to kill only one worker. Suddenly, numbers do count. In this case, we seem to accept that a consideration of consequences is important and we should attempt to do that which would be the greatest good for the greatest number. Of course, a lot of people just think philosophers are people with too much time on their hands to think of these dumb problems! But these two hypotheticals teach us something significant about ethical frameworks. Our intuitions seem to provide some support for each framework. This is another way of saying that our intuitions also lead us to be critical of each framework. A lot of philosophers think our intuitions, if shared, can be an important starting point for ethical reflection, preventing us from overworking our theories and taking them to logical, but impossible, conclusions. Our intuitions pick up features in the context (even of a hypothetical) which constrain our theory-building. We live in a world where there are differences of opinion concerning not only ethical behaviour, but also ethical reasoning. We need to understand the ethical frameworks that different individuals and groups draw on. As the above examples show, each frameworks gets part of the picture right, but may not be applicable in every context. Ethics is about applying reason and intuition to relationships in contexts. Ethical frameworks The three main ethical frameworks philosophers have used to put ethics on an independent basis have dealt with either consequences, principles or virtues. To these we might add recent developments based on feminist ethics which emphasise responsibility and caring. Consequences One way of deciding the right thing to do would be to consider the consequences that would flow from our potential courses of action. The most influential ethical framework dealing with consequences is utilitarianism. We ought to do those things which will bring the greatest good to the greatest number. The good is interpreted in terms of the utility, or usefulness, of an action in maximising happiness. One of the earliest proponents of the theory was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). He defined happiness in terms of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Critics of Bentham argued that his theory seemed to prefer a happy pig to a sad Socrates. Utilitarianism involves a great degree of calculation to determine the amount of happiness. Bentham also had rules for punishment which were built on the same logic. For example, 'When two offences come in competition, the punishment for the greater offence must be sufficient to induce a man to prefer the less'. If one gets the same punishment for stealing a loaf of bread as stealing a car, what would stop a man from stealing a car? It all has a kind of iron logic to it; but unfortunately, it does not always work out in practice. This framework assumes that people act rationally, even when they break the law. The consideration of consequences, however, does seem to be an appropriate consideration in public life. When people are in public roles they cannot simply consider their private interests or the sectional interests of a few; they must give consideration to the impact of their decisions on the common good. Certainly, utilitarian frameworks seem to operate in political and business life, almost to the exclusion of others. The most famous contemporary utilitarian is the Australian, Peter Singer. His brand of utilitarianism is called welfare utilitarianism. Rather than talking about happiness, he argues that we ought to seek to maximise the interests of those concerned. For Singer, all sentient beings have interests. Interestingly, he was one of the first exponents of animal rights. He argues that animals share with humans a capacity to suffer such that we ought to recognise that animals have an interest, for example, in not being killed, just as humans do. To not recognise this would be 'species-ism' equivalent to the racism which the community no longer finds acceptable. In fact, Singer argues that with regard to experimentation, some animals may have more of an interest in not participating than a human baby born without a brain, who cannot feel pain and will die shortly.
Principles Singer's viewpoint, though consistent within his framework, is not accepted by those who see it as violating certain principles or duties that we ought to follow regardless of consequences. They would argue that Singer's position violates a duty not to take life. Whether they would extend that right to animals depends on other features of their framework of beliefs. A Buddhist, for example, who believes in expressing compassion towards all living beings, may refrain from taking animal life; but a Christian might extend the prohibition on killing to human life only; or even just to innocent human life. The principlist approach is often also referred to as duty-based ethics. We act because we have a duty to follow rationally derived principles, regardless of the consequences. So, for example, it would be argued that we have a duty to tell the truth and telling a lie is always wrong, regardless of the consequences. We cannot control the consequences, but we can choose to fulfil a moral duty. Must of us would probably find this a hard framework to apply in all circumstances. We should always tell the truth, but would we tell a man with an axe in his hand that his battered and bruised wife is in our kitchen, or would we tell a lie and try to divert him elsewhere? Of course, we do not know where our lying might lead, and that is the principlists' point. Even principlists would argue that in real situations we may be required to sort through and prioritise our principles. In the above case, for example, we might prioritise saving a life ahead of truth-telling. Principists would argue, however, that moral duties should be universalisable; this is, they are duties to be followed by everybody in similar sets of circumstances. So, for example, we support equal justice for all and the application of our laws to all without fear or favour. If the consequentialist approach has us calculating what will happen next in a situation, principlists are content to read the situation from the outside, from an external set of rules, as it were. This is why many of the moral codes arising from religious frameworks are naturally duty-based. One follows a rule because God commands it. Here the duty may rest not in the rule to be followed but in the authority of the command giver. Whether the external point of reference is reason or the divine, the search for an authoritative reference point outside the situation is the same. Virtues If duty-based ethics arise from outside the situation under consideration, then virtue-based ethics can be said to arise from within us. This framework does not look for the right thing to do in a set of external rules or in the features of an ethical situation; rather, it looks within the character of the person involved. From this point of view, ethics is not just about deciding to tell the truth in a difficult situation, or applying a rule. It is about becoming an honest person through the cultivation of ethical habits. Thus, when confronted with an ethical challenge one does not have to decide whether to tell the truth of not; one simply continues to act honestly. If I find a large sum of money in the school playground, I do not think to myself, 'Finders keepers', but I am concerned someone has lost it and I return it. If honesty is in my character I would not think otherwise. Virtues are to be cultivated in the same way as other skills -through practice. Just as we learn the piano by practicing; in the same way we cultivate virtue by practicing the virtues in our daily life. Bobby Jones (1902-1971) the famous amateur US golfer, once lost a tournament because he added a stoke to his score after his ball had moved while he was addressing it. No one else had seen it move. In handing him second prize, the tournament officials praised him highly for his ethical action. His reply? 'You may as well praise people for not robbing banks'. In this view, most of the time we know what the right thing to do is, and we just do it. It is those who seek to act unethically who should be required to give reasons. There are many virtues that we could cultivate, including truthfulness, courage, compassion, self-control, generosity, gentleness and modesty, to name but a few. Responsibility and care
Carol Gilligan, was a student of the moral psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg had a theory that moral development proceeded through several stages from concrete thinking, through a conventional stage towards a capacity to work with abstract ideas and universal principles. All Kohlberg's research subjects has been male. By chance, Gilligan's research subject's were all female. She found that the responses of her subjects focused on relationships and needs rather than rights and universal laws. For Kohlberg this would have indicated a 'lower' stage of moral development; for Gilligan it indicated a differing approach altogether. She called her published research, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Rather than wanting to explore abstract principles, Gilligan's research subjects, in responding to cases she put to them, wanted to know what would happen next, what the person felt, and wanted to know other elements of the situation, which were not relevant to the application of abstract principles. Applying an ethics of care does not necessarily lead to different solutions, but does involve asking different questions. Instead of foregrounding notions such as justice, rights or autonomy, for example, needs and care are emphasised. Ethical exploration does not involve rules, universality and impartial consideration of consequences; rather, morality is about caring, a direct relationship of emotional responsiveness to the suffering of persons. An ethic of care is not simply the replacement of reason with emotion, nor does it mean making a principle of caring is a new universalising grand theory. The ethical significance of caring cannot be detached from the practical settings in which it is expressed. Caring will mean different things as it is expressed in a variety of specific relationships; for example, mothering, fathering, friendship, sexual intimacy, in professions such as nursing or policing, or in public life through citizenship. A care ethic is in many ways more practical than traditional philosophical approaches. It focuses on lived experience and adds to reasoning a sensitive appreciation of practical needs and caring responses to those needs. An ethics of care focuses on alleviating hurts while maintaining connectedness. Healing and reconciliation are central to an ethic of care. A caring person will weigh consequences by consulting with those actually involved. The concreteness of an ethics of care is also summed up in the concept of 'voice'. Unlike disembodied theories or frameworks, a voice is a more embodied reality. Voices can be different, but they can learn to harmonise together. Voices can be more expressive in tone, texture and rhythm. Voices combine emotion and content. Voices are not so much right and wrong or true and false; but they can be strong or weak, hesitant or confident. At the end of one of my courses, for examples, students may be at a loss as to what theoretical framework I adopt, but they cannot mistake my voice; they know where I will stand on a range of issues. Most importantly, the concept of voice encourages to ask ourselves again, 'Have all voices been heard on this issue?' Common values? The concept of diverse voices harmonising probably better suits the reality of ethical diversity than the quest for common values. Some scholars have claimed to have scanned the various ethical theories and the values and beliefs of cultures around the world and discovered a set of core values. Whether or not these readings of core values are true, it would be dangerous to just read back those values into specific situations. The search for commonly accepted values is really the search for a shared set of moral understandings. It would be futile to seek such a shared perspective without reference to some particular issues. Even at the local level, if we were to work towards naming some shared core values for our classroom or our school here and now, it is hard to see how we could not fall into the temptation of imposing those values on the next 'generation'. Value lies in the actual processes of engagement, discussion and discovery themselves.
What's wrong here and how can we put it right? Not all ethical issues involve dilemmas in dramatic situations. Dramatic ethics focus on hard choices in response to ‘neon’ light issues. Persisting ethics or everyday ethics involve the issues which underlie dramatic situations, but inform our everyday situations. It may not be what we do, but how we do it, that causes ill-feelings. To unlock everyday ethics issues, rather than needing a toolbox of abstract principles or theories, we need a series of questions which will open up the context and help us to answer the question, 'Is there anything wrong here, and how can we put it right?' Applying ethics in everyday life is not about being an expert in theories but about setting up and sustaining relationships which mutually recognise the needs, interests, and aspirations of all participants. It involves these following steps. 1. Explore meanings. First we need to ask questions which will help us to understand the frameworks of all participants, individual and institutional. What are their assumptions, insights and limitations. From the point of view of the various people involved, what is going on here? Not just from my point of view? What meanings does this have for the participants from their point of view. For example, an invitation to a Christmas Party with a pig-on-a-spit and free XXXX would not be seen as an inclusive end-of-year social by a Muslim, or even a vegetarian, for that matter. If they don't not end up attending, it may not be because they don't want to party. 2. Appreciate particulars, including constraints on choices. The second set of questions we should ask acknowledges the richness, complexity and particularity of others. Do I understand the factors which enable or constrain them; that is, their relative power or powerlessness? Is engagement with others being promoted, or are solutions being advocated from a distance without a fuller, deeper understanding of the situation? Are relationships, practices, individuals, institutions and communities being morally enriched? We ask these questions because not everyone is in a position to choose freely from all the options. If you have school excursions that are always to places inaccessible to students in wheelchairs, are we really giving them the choice to come? Or is it fair for a parent to leave an eleven-year old to look after three smaller kinds? Is that recognising their particularity? Or are we asking to much of them because we a treating them like adults? 3. Explore ethical frameworks. Only after opening up the context by exploring these two sets of questions can we begin to bring back in the ethical frameworks from our philosophical and religious traditions. Then we can ask what values, principles, and virtues should inform our response? What would be the caring thing to do?. Again, we should seek to understand which moral codes other participants bring to the situation. 4. Do something about it. We should not stop our inquiry there with an intellectual appraisal. We need to ask ourselves as final set of question. What can we do about this? What action is possible? What strategies for change are appropriate? What strategies are participants already using to promote their values? What possibilities are there for informing, educating, mobilising, mediating or, if necessary, resisting? Asking this set of questions will be more morally enriching than simply asking what is the greatest good for the greatest number, or what principle should I use in this situation? Moral responsibility demands more of us than intellectual skills alone; it also involves skills of perception (noticing and attending), discursive skills (ability to describe what is happening and our feelings about what is happening), and responding skills (listening, empathy, etc). Responsibility requires these communication skills because morality is always interpersonal.