How Do You Define Ethics?

This column is the first in a new series dealing with ethical dilemmas. You, the reader, write in (anonymously) about a personal ethical issue you are confronting.

Here is where it gets interesting. I cannot give a definitive answer because there is none. There is no Ethics Jeopardy game with right and wrong answers, buzzers, and a host with the answers written on a card. But I can help frame the question, offer some ethical concepts and stimulate a discussion among readers interested in ethical problems.

The idea for an ethics column sounded modest when I proposed it to the editor until she asked, “So, how do you define ethics?” After having taught, written, and worked on ethical issues for decades this seemed like a simple task. After fumbling a bit, I realized I had not formulated a clear, concise definition that did not use the term ethics to describe itself. I had been a lawyer too long.

Ben Bycel
Paul Wellman

I re-read selected ideas and thoughts about ethics from a variety of voices: Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Bentham, Rand, the Bible, Rawls, Locke and numerous other heavy weight ethics thinkers. I reviewed meta-ethics, rational ethics, normative ethics, applied ethics, descriptive ethics, moral ethics, and scores of other philosophies that all used ethics in their titles.

I knew that the word “law” did not belong in the definition of ethics. Written laws, though they reflect societal values, are not ethical standards. Abiding by the law may keep you from going to jail, but it does not necessarily follow that your behavior is ethical.

The reverse is also true. Breaking a law, for example through civil disobedience, may put you in jail, but you may have acted ethically.

Ethics is a series of beliefs and principles held by a person or group about how to determine which human inter-actions they believe are right or wrong. These core beliefs are often interconnected and overlap with other value systems, religious views, legal systems, philosophies, social conventions and moral codes.

Each of us adheres, to a greater or lesser extent, to one or more of these ethical constructs. Most of the time, these beliefs define the ethical parameters of our thinking and behavior. We have few quandaries.

An ethical dilemma occurs when a person’s ethical beliefs do not provide a clear enough resolution to the problem he or she faces.

I want to have a conversation with you and other readers about those ethical dilemmas.

I look forward to hearing from you the readers about ethical issues such as the following:

You’re a well educated, experienced professional who has done considerable writing in your career. Your son wants to get into one of the UC schools. While a good test taker, he has never excelled at writing essays. He asks you to look at his essay. You think it’s dreadful. How much help do you give him? Point out obvious problems? Do an outline for him? Re-write the paper? Let him just hand it in and take his chances? Do you think that your help might allow your son to be admitted over another student with the same grades whose father and mother are not professionals and could not assist him with the essay?

This example illustrates a true ethical problem because the range of choices allows you to test your ethical beliefs against a concrete problem.

That’s what we will be doing in this column: examining our ethical beliefs by examining problems readers pose.

Please submit quandaries for this column to


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