Ethics is of utmost importance: ask the CEO’s of leading corporations or America’s military leaders. Yet, at the same time, we might just as well dismally conclude that ethics is of no significance whatsoever! Just witness the private proclamations and even more the behavior of some of those same kinds of leaders when it comes to understanding, believing, and practicing what they preach.
Ethics is a bit like one of its key components: lying and truth-telling. No one publicly celebrates or advocates telling lies. Everyone testifies to the importance of the Truth. Yet everyone lies, and does so often: to spouses, children, friends, business associates, and the IRS – and usually feels that it is necessary or justified – at least in their very own “unique and exceptional” individual case.
Is this simply hypocrisy on our part? We say one thing and do the opposite? Or is it evidence of something even more complex.
I suggest that anyone puzzled or troubled by this apparent paradox simply try cross-examining those who proclaim to believe in the importance of ethics, and ask them further what they themselves understand and mean by “ethics.”
I predict that you will get a wide range of responses. Some people will quote a dictionary or encyclopedia definition, about living a “good and honorable life,” or consistently trying to “do what is right.” Others may cite beliefs in the inviolability of certain moral principles (such as “truth-telling,” above!), and go on to relate these moral principles to important religious or philosophical teachings from wise men or great leaders. Others may think that the lifelong cultivation of moral virtues and “good character” is the key to ethics.
But they will seldom cite the same religions, the same “great leaders,” or the same moral principles. They will often disagree, in fact, on what virtues are most important (is it courage or honor, loyalty or trustworthiness?). And this is because, finally, each person you consult will think these are all matters of highly variable personal conviction or opinion. In fact, about the only thing that people seem to agree on is the belief that “ethics” is a matter of personal or cultural opinions about right and wrong, and that there is little or no commonality among or between distinct individuals or cultures other than what “ethics” itself actually is.
That view is widely held. But that does not mean it is true or accurate.
What it does mean is that those who believe it are exempt from having to search deeply for better answers or firmer foundations for justifying moral beliefs. Instead, we are free to attribute bad behavior to the different beliefs about ethics by others respecting what constitutes right and wrong, rather than to wonder whether they (or we) might be mistaken about some of those beliefs. As a result, apart perhaps from self-interest, there seems to be little in the way of a shared conception of the Good at which right moral actions should aim.
Interestingly, such views fare less well within well-defined professions, like medicine or the military. Members of a professional community, engaged in a common enterprise like health care or defense of the nation, are less free to “go their own ways” with respect to moral beliefs. They share a conception of the Good at which their common professional activity aims: e.g., the health of their patients, the security of their citizens (in these two instances). They are thus compelled, whether they wish to or not, or always realize it or not, to engage with each other in a search for better or worse means of attaining or achieving those ends.
Assuming only a good-faith commitment to the practice of their profession, that is to say, the members of that profession are compelled to engage with each other about the proper practice of their profession. They are led to generate a common code of practice and ideals of best practice. And often, in reflecting upon some of the worst tragedies and disasters that befall individual members of their profession, they are led to further specify clearly the boundaries of acceptable professional practice, and the definition(s) of professional malfeasance. (This is what doctors did, for example, after World War II, in what is known as the “Nuremburg Code.”)
But that is precisely what “ethics” itself is: the discernment, through reflection upon our practices, of both the limits on acceptable conduct, as well as upon the standards and ideals upheld within the best practices of our profession. Often this process involves teaching these ideals and limitations on acceptable behavior to new recruits or initiates as an orientation to the profession, or else “publishing” them to the wider community in the form of a Code of Ethical Conduct to help our fellow citizens know who we are, and the values for which we stand (as well as to remind and guide our own members toward the fulfillment of these ideals).
At least in these important instances, where there is some prospect of sharing a common notion of the Good, there is less debate about what “ethics” itself is. “Ethics” consists of a commonly-forged and widely-shared conception of proper conduct of our lives and affairs in the wider world. In the wider world, in turn, we rightly hold to account the physician or the soldier – or for that matter, the teacher or the clergyman, the lawyer or the journalist – for living and practicing in accordance with the highest ideals of their chosen professional practice, while simultaneously avoiding transgressing the limits on acceptable professional conduct.
This is “professional ethics.” We are entitled to hold ourselves accountable for living up to these standards, or, when required, to sit in judgment of those who fail to do so. There is nothing self-righteous or sanctimonious about demanding that we all live according to the rules, laws, and ideals to which we have all voluntarily agreed, and that we all have freely shared in forging.
This, in turn, offers at least a clue about what “ethics” itself consists of in the wider world: an even broader call each and every one of us – whether doctor, lawyer, soldier, or citizen – to commit ourselves to proper, principled action, while continuously reflecting on the better and worse ways of living well and doing Good in our world, striving always toward the realization of the highest ideals of being a human being, as such. That is the proper understanding, and the proper practice, of “ethics.”
George Lucas is Distinguished Chair in Ethics Emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, and Visiting Distinguished Research Professor at Notre Dame University. His latest book is Military Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).