What Is Ethics?


Ethics is a branch of philosophy dealing with what is morally right and wrong, good and bad (ethic in Merriam-Webster). Right and wrong refers to behaviors or conduct, whereas good and bad refers to outcomes and consequences of behaviors. The discussion of ethics in forensic science explores a profession that shares moral values or qualities within its own community and in relation to coexisting professions. Ethics can be viewed as the general study of the ideals regarding human behavior and the guiding principles. It accounts for individual morals, a group dynamic, and guidance of groups, while protecting rights of those involved in a particular group, agency, or profession. Plato stated that people typically think of ethics as practical knowledge, not theoretical knowledge; but in reality, it is both. Ethics are not meant to dictate actions but to offer the tools and direction for dealing with situations. The goal of ethics is to protect the rights and needs of professions (or groups) when situations are not just black and white. Ethics are standards of conduct that prescribe behavior but do not describe actual behavior (Resnik, 1998). If ethics deal with right and wrong in terms of ideals, then what constitutes morals, and how do these differ from ethics?

Morality is the operational side of ethics that provides a basis of right and wrong for application of ethics. Ethics are applicable to situations and are practiced, whereas morals are known. Morals tend to be specific and generally agreed the standards of conduct in society. Though people tend to confuse ethics and morals, morality and integrity are more similar and may be used interchangeably when referring to personal actions. Morals may be thought of as a guide to leading a moral life, or conducting oneself by the golden rule with actions in the spirit of everybody wins. Honesty and integrity are society’s most general moral values that apply to everyone (right or wrong). Just because people are honest and have morals does not mean that they will not face ethical issues at some point in their lives. Learning about ethics as it relates to a profession will serve as a guide to overcome ethical dilemmas. The learning process involves constant questioning and discussion of ethical values as the profession evolves. Ethical principles, such as obligation, fairness, mercy, and duty, are validated by consistency, relevant factors, and suitability for human experience.

Moral standards may be universal even if moral judgment is individualized and influenced by society. Aristotle’s virtue theory’s perspective is that the goal of ethics is the development of moral goodness. A person must portray character traits that fit social and moral values while having the desire to act morally. A person who seeks to make practical moral judgments will strive for moderation in lieu of extremes. Although moderation depends on the individual, appropriate actions are dictated through reason. According to Socrates, “Virtue is knowledge and knowledge is virtue.” In other words, if a person knows what is right, he or she will act on what is right. This statement also implies that wrongdoing is involuntary and based on unawareness, which illustrates the reason for some examples of unethical behavior that are examined in Chapter 9. So how does a person know what actions are right? A study conducted by James Rest and his colleagues determined that ethical behavior is a result of four processes: (1) moral sensitivity or the ability to interpret situations, recognize the ethical issue, and understand consequences; (2) moral judgment or the ability to decide which act is morally justified; (3) moral motivation or the commitment to doing what is ethical, using ethical standards, and taking responsibility for consequences; and (4) moral character or the courage, determination, and confidence to execute ethical behavior (Johannesen et al., 2008). Before moving forward, it is important to first look at the evolution of ethics as a branch of philosophy and the various schools of thought on the topic.

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