One standard answer is that ethics consists of a set of standards that tell us what is right and what is wrong or, put somewhat differently, standards that help us determine what we ought to do.
Another answer, from a DVD for use in teaching research ethics or what has come to be called the responsible conduct of research (RCR), is that what we are talking about here are “standards of behavior—how we ought to act as our best selves.”*
These answers seem very much the same, though there is a difference worth noting. Where the former suggests a “toggle switch view” of ethics as a matter of duty or obligation—one must do what is right and refrain from what is wrong—the latter suggests that ethics is a matter of aspiration, of one’s striving to be one’s best self.
There is more to say about what ethics is than has been said above. But in doing so we move beyond the breakwater, so to speak, because what needs to be said is responsive to questions about the standards, whether they are aspirational or markers of duty. For example, one may query whether the standards are universal, in some sense, or relative, in the sense of being (inextricably) bound to culture/settled beliefs? Another question is whether the standards are absolute or categorical? Do they allow for exceptions? Would allowing for exceptions mean abandoning any sense of genuine fidelity to them? These questions can’t be answered well in just a few words, and so in this context should be put to one side. They are, however, questions that can and do receive attention in the work that the Rutland Institute does on campus with students and faculty, as well as off campus with business leaders and professionals.
*The Office of Research Integrity, Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Public Health and Science, created the DVD, called The Lab. It is available online: http://ori.hhs.gov/TheLab
Ethics provides a framework for successful decision making.
Ethics initiatives lead to long-term financial success.
Ethics practices lead to personal growth and fulfillment.
Ethics brings stability and less turnover to businesses and other organizations.
Ethics applied consistently leads to a clearly-planned future.
Ethics offers a chance for greater peace and security.
A local bank was in the planning phases of the construction of a new office building. As decisions were being made,the bank determined that it could incorporate an all-green process in its materials and functionality, but at a greater cost up front. After much consideration, the bank decided to adopt the green option. In four years, the bank recouperated its investment and its building consumes a much smaller amount of energy than it would have with the non-green option. It has received much recognition for its intiative, leading to improved customer and employee loyalty; and positioning it as an example for other businesses in the community.
A tenth-grade social studies teacher tasked her class with a project that involved spending time in the community. Student John was angry about the assignment because he already had a full schedule. How could he fit this in too? He and three of his classmates found time on a Saturday to volunteer at a Senior Citizens Center. John met Mr. Drew, a widowed WWII veteran. He had no children and was glad to welcome a new visitor. John established a friendship with Mr. Drew and began to visit him regularly. Mr. Drew told him stories of his youth and his war experiences and John's life was richer for having met him.
Academic Integrity. Academic integrity represents the core of success in learning. At Clemson, The International Center for Academic Integrity is leading the way with programs and initiatives that encourage integrity in academic endeavors. Establishing a foundation of ethics early in one's academic career can lead to broadened perspectives and future success.
Ethics in Education. In the classroom, students acquire the skills and knowledge base they will need in their future careers. Often, however, they graduate without learning much about principled decision making and without having practiced making the kinds of tough ethical choices they will almost certainly face. Teachers and professors have a unique opportunity to show them the role that ethics plays in professional excellence and sustainable societies, and how their choices about issues ranging from plagiarism to professional misconduct will determine not just their career trajectories but also the kind of people they will become.
Ethics Across the Curriculum. This program is based on the premise that if ethics were truly integrated in regular courses throughout the curriculum, the impact would be dramatic in helping students develop “ethical judgment.” Faculty in all disciplines are taught tools and practice skills of modeling a systematic, reflective, and responsible approach to serious and often controversial ethical problems. This makes it easier for them to help students see that there is an ethical dimension to every aspect of their lives and help them develop the critical skills necessary to make informed ethical decisions. Click for more information.
Sustainability. Constantly changing technologies and the complexity of our environment and human endurance demand ethical consideration. Environmental and human consumption issues have the potential for long-term impacts on our planet and future generations. Initiatives that educate about conservation methods have the potential to empower people and ignite new ideas about this growing concern.
Ethics in Business. Ethics in businesses and corporations has been at the forefront of current events in recent years. Keeping ethics initiatives active in businesses and organizations has the potential to help professionals maintain an awareness of "where to draw the line." Professional ethics seminars and workshops offer businesses and employees a continued understanding of the positive impacts of ethics in the workplace.
Ethics in Community. Volunteering, giving, and just "doing the right thing" are felt profoundly at the community level. Community ethics practices take the form of kindness, understanding, and compassion for others. In many ways it is the most foundational point of ethics application in existence. Volunteer programs and charities provide opportunities for many and enrich communities.
Mutual Respect and Diversity. Perspective and respect for others lie at the heart of diversity initiatives. Diversity enriches lives and organizations by enabling them to see objects and events from new angles. Broadening one's perspective by viewing the world through different filters offers a chance for finding new solutions to problems.