2 Tutorials that teach Ethical and Non-Ethical Topics
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Ethical and Non-Ethical Topics

Ethical and Non-Ethical Topics

Author: John Lumsden

In this lesson, students will distinguish topics of ethics from topics of religion, etiquette, and law.

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Introduction to Psychology

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In this tutorial we will be looking at how ethics is distinguished from other ways of evaluating human action and behavior. Our discussion will break down like this:
  1. The Role of Ethics
  2. Ethics and Other Practices
  3. Further Distinguishing Ethics and Non-Ethics

1. The Role of Ethics

To begin with, recall that ethics is the branch of philosophy that analyzes and defends concepts of value and thereby seeks to determine right and wrong.

There are other practices in our lives that appear to be doing something similar to ethics, but in fact have different roles in society. Law, social convention (or etiquette), and religion all offer perspectives from which to judge people’s actions and behaviors. The illustration bellow distinguishes these from ethics.

Ethics determines what is right or wrong for us to do, based on moral principles.  Law determines rules for citizens and potential punishments for breaking these rules. Social convention determines socially and historically specific expectations about public behavior.  Religion determines the practice required for a proper relationship to the divine.

These different practices are often confused. For instance, commentators and public personalities often express disapproval of people that have alternative lifestyles. Although this may be presented as moral judgment, it is usually just disapproval of anyone who doesn't follow social convention.

This confusion of social convention with morality can cloud our understanding of ethics.

It was once widely believed to be wrong for women to vote. In the United States, for instance, it was not until the 19th amendment (ratified on August 18, 1920) that women finally won the right to vote.

Many may have thought that it was morally wrong for women to vote. But this was just an attachment to social convention. Once social convention is challenged, important social change can occur.

2. Ethics and Other Practices

It is not always easy to distinguish the aims of ethics from other practices. One reason for this is that there is sometimes overlap between them. For instance, consider the following examples where ethics is in agreement with law. But also pay attention to where disagreement arises.

AGREE It is morally wrong to kill.

It is morally wrong to steal.
It is illegal to kill.

It is illegal to steal.
DISAGREE It is morally wrong to betray a friend's trust.

It is morally wrong to neglect your parents in old age.
It is not illegal to betray a friend's trust.

It is not illegal to neglect your parents in old age.

Similarly, consider the agreement and disagreement between ethics and social convention.

AGREE It is moral to protect your children from danger.

It is moral to respect others' privacy.
It is conventional for parents to protect their children.
It is conventional to respect others' privacy.
DISAGREE It is not morally wrong for a man to wear a dress.

It is morally wrong to profit from others' misfortune.
It is against convention for a man to wear a dress..

It is conventional to profit from foreclosure.

Finally, compare ethics and religion in terms of the agreement and disagreement they reveal on certain issues.

AGREE It is morally wrong to commit adultery.

It is moral to help strangers in need.
Many religions forbid adultery.

Religions encourage helping strangers.
DISAGREE It is not a moral obligation to love God.

It is morally wrong to make a human sacrifice.
To love God is often a religious demand.

Many religions teach human sacrifices for God.

3. Further Distinguishing Ethics and Non-Ethics

As we have seen, different situations or actions receive different treatment by ethics, law, social convention, and religion. Whatever action or behavior we want to evaluate will be addressed differently depending upon which perspective we approach it from.

Consider the issue of alcohol consumption for instance. You can find below some of the different questions or considerations that will be raised by ethics, law, social convention, and religion.

For ethics the question is does drinking alcohol secure happiness? Does it accord with duty to myself and others? The law asks if social order threatened by alcohol consumption? When is it disruptive? Social Convention asks if alcohol consumption is an expected social behavior?  and religion asks if God approve of alcohol consumption?

We started this tutorial by looking at the role of ethics in society and how it differs from other practices. Then we went into more detail about the differences between ethics and other practices, namely law, social convention, and religion. Finally, we ended by further distinguishing ethics and non-ethics through a comparison of the various considerations that the question of alcohol consumption raises.