Ethics is the study of right and wrong behavior. We can use this study to establish guidelines for understanding and assessing the correctness or incorrectness of people’s actions. But the study of ethics is not about simply memorizing a specific set of rules. By studying ethics we practice identifying, evaluating, and reforming our deeply-held beliefs about how we want the world to be.
The study of ethics gives us a specialized vocabulary we can use to communicate with one another. It allows us to critically evaluate the political, legal, and economic institutions that we share. Ultimately, ethics provides the tools to reshape the world around us—a language to define fairness, diagnose inequality, and correct injustice.
There are three common difficulties that arise when talking about ethics: 1) the relation between ethics and the law, 2) the difference between moral claims and descriptive facts (that is, assertions about how the world ought to be as opposed to descriptions about the way the world is), and 3) the worry that moral disputes are merely differences of opinion with no right or wrong answer.
What Is Ethical and What Is Legal
Ethics is not the same thing as law. When we consider whether a doctor should aid in physician-assisted suicide, we ask if it is the morally correct thing to do. Is such an action consistent with our moral beliefs and principles on the matter? This question cannot be answered by reference to our laws or previous court rulings.
While the prescriptions of law and morality often overlap (“murder is wrong”), this is not always the case (“breaking a promise is wrong”). Law is more permissive; it allows, or at least does not condemn, more actions than one’s moral or religious beliefs typically do (lying or cheating on a partner). Likewise, many of the duties prescribed by our moral or religious beliefs are not legally required (prayer, charity, being a good Samaritan).
Why is this the case? Why do our moral beliefs and our laws diverge? The law is intended to regulate everyone’s behavior regardless of the specific beliefs of any particular citizen. It offers basic guidelines to promote the general welfare of society. But the law typically tries not to take a stand on what citizens should personally believe. We maintain the priority of rights like freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion, and so we expect the law to be more tolerant than individual moral and religious codes.
Despite this separation between legal fact and moral belief, we may observe some connection between what the law says and what our morals say in many cases. Moral reasons are often given in support of legislation, and laws can sometimes be seen as expressing our moral convictions. Because of this, law and morality appear deeply intertwined.
While the formation of any law may be influenced by moral beliefs, this should not be taken as proof that the moral dispute has been resolved. Just because we have a law permitting the death penalty or prohibiting felons from voting, does not mean that we cannot or should not examine the evidence and arguments on either side. In the end, the questions that we confront in the study of ethics cannot simply be answered by deferring to what the law says on the matter. In some ways, our question is more fundamental. We want to know why the law says what it says, or what the law should say.
Troubleshooting: We all have a tendency to sidestep difficult moral questions by focusing on whether an act is legal. When asked if it’s okay to test cosmetics on animals, or to administer lethal injections to inmates, or to engage in price-gouging, it’s easy to say that these actions are permissible because no law has been broken. When asked if it is wrong to drive a vehicle without a seatbelt, or to pay for organ donation, or to engage in civil disobedience, it’s easy to respond that these actions are forbidden because they violate the law. But all of these responses fail to address the underlying moral considerations; there is more going on here.
These questions might be helpful in getting to these deeper issues and moving the conversation from a legal debate to a moral one:
“Imagine you were a lawmaker …”
“What do you think the law should say?”
“What do you think is fair?”
“Is a particular position more or less justified?”
Descriptive Claims and Normative Claims
The difference between legal facts and moral beliefs helps to highlight the distinction between a descriptive claim and a normative claim. Descriptive claims are things that are or are not true about the world as it is now—for example, “All US presidents have been male” is a descriptive claim, a statement of fact. Here are some other descriptive claims: “Jaywalking is a crime.” “In 2016, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners.” “The world is flat.”
Normative claims are different, because they express whether something should or shouldn’t be the case—for example, “All US presidents should be male” is a normative claim. So too are these claims: “Jaywalking should not be a crime.” “The differences in incarceration rates between blacks and whites are unjust.” “Flat-earthers are treated unfairly.”
Normative claims make value judgments. When we make normative claims, we express opinions that are based on our principles and beliefs. These claims are very different from descriptive claims which are based on measurable, scientific facts that can be easily proven or disproven.
Instead, normative claims are assessed according to an argument’s merit. We want to see whether one’s starting principles and beliefs warrant the conclusion that is drawn. Think of a doctor who observes symptoms in order to come to a diagnosis. We want an explanation of the doctor’s reasoning. Why should we conclude that this is the flu rather than pneumonia? When we assess normative claims we are asking for a justification of one’s judgment. What evidence does one offer in support of the claim? What reasons are provided?
We sometimes confuse descriptive and normative claims. In philosophy, this is called the is-ought distinction. We often merge statements about what is with statements about what should be. But the mere fact that something is, in fact, true (“human bodies have evolved to digest meat”), does not prove that something should be the case (“humans should eat animals”).
Troubleshooting: While statements of fact are often used to support moral arguments, the transition from reasons/evidence to implication/conclusion inevitably rests on value judgments. Even if we had all the scientific evidence in the world concerning humans’ contribution to global climate change, it could never settle the question of what, if any, obligations we have to combat the problem. It couldn’t even settle the question of whether humans are morally blameworthy for their role. Those normative claims would require further argument; they would require other kinds of reasoning and inference that are distinct from assertions of fact.
In separating descriptive facts from normative claims, it may be helpful to simultaneously distinguish between evidence and conclusions. These questions might be helpful in highlighting the difference between the two and moving class discussion from debates about the truth of different empirical claims to the reasonableness/plausibility of different normative claims (or arguments):
“Assuming this descriptive claim is true …”
“Is there a way we could know this for sure? Or is the claim debatable?”
“What does this piece of evidence suggest? Could someone use it to argue the opposite?”
“Does this fact support the conclusion? Would it support other conclusions as well?”
“Is the argument well-supported?”
We all experience the world very differently. We all grew up in different conditions, in different social cultures, and were exposed to different thoughts and ideas. We may or may not share the same values. Because of all of this, we might disagree on what the right thing to do is. But this conflict does not mean that ethics is merely subjective. Nor does it mean that what the “right” thing to do in a situation is simply a matter of opinion.
Some moral beliefs are more defensible than others. One way we judge this is on the basis of consistency: does this collection of moral beliefs fit together? Is it free from contradictions? Does it lead to unintended or harmful outcomes we find objectionable? We might also consider whether one’s moral beliefs are inclusive of others and tolerant of others’ beliefs. Do these beliefs violate our common, shared standards of fairness? Are they prejudicial or discriminatory in some way?
It might be a fact that different cultures have different moral beliefs. It may be that no single set of moral beliefs could be adopted by everyone. And it’s true that normative claims cannot be validated like descriptive claims can be. But these concerns need not dissuade us from our search for some basic, foundational moral principles to judge our own and others’ behavior by. Ultimately, we all believe that certain practices are wrong in any context (such as slavery or genocide). So we are all committed to finding some shared standard of right and wrong to which we can hold ourselves and others accountable.
Troubleshooting: We sometimes wonder what right anyone has for imposing any obligations and duties onto others. By what right can my freedom or others’ freedom be restricted? In the absence of a universal moral code endorsed by all, any enforcement of a political policy or moral stance can feel arbitrary and unjustified. With so many competing moral theories and no single right answer, ethical debate can seem endless (with no real winners and losers) and pointless (with no tangible, practical benefit or goal).
These questions might be helpful in emphasizing the practical impact of moral debates and the necessity of assessing the relative merits of competing claims of what is “right”:
“Are there reasons we might prefer one solution/conclusion over another?”
“Is this position tolerant of others? Does it treat everyone fairly or equally?”
“If you were in a position of authority (lawmaker, judge, superintendent, politician, bureaucrat) which policy would you endorse?”
- John Gramlich, “The gap between the number of blacks and whites in prison is shrinking,” Pew Research Center, 12 January 2018. ↵