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Introduction to Ethical Concepts

Part 1. Values and Value Judgments
  1. Values Distinguished from Preferences
  2. Types of Value and Value Judgments
  3. Ethical Relativism
  4. Good-Bad, Right-Wrong, and What One Ought To Do
  5. Consequences, Harm, Improvement and Benefit
Part 2. Ethical Requirements on Action
  1. Moral Rights
  2. Moral Obligations, Moral Rules and Moral Standing
Part 3. Moral Character and Responsibility
  1. Virtues and Vices
  2. Ethical Responsibility and Official Responsibility
  3. Trust and Responsibility
Part 4. Privacy, Confidentiality, Intellectual Property and the Law
  1. Privacy and confidentiality

Fine Points


A clear understanding of the terms, concepts and distinctions that people commonly use to express moral or ethical problems and concerns enables us to identify what is ethically significant (or "morally relevant") in a situation. Understanding the ethical significance of the problems we face is the first step in responding well to them.

The tendency to avoid ethical language is widespread in the United States, so that even the most common terms for describing ethical situations seem strangely unfamiliar. Although avoiding ethical language may, in some circumstances, serve to reduce the defensiveness of those whose actions or policies are being questioned, it inhibits the understanding of ethical situations, the ethical problems that commonly occur, and the possibility of resolving those problems. Furthermore, a consistent use of terms is required for parties to be able to recognize when they are agreeing, disagreeing or addressing different subjects.

This introduction is intended both to clarify ethical terms and distinctions and to provide a general framework for considering ethical questions. If discussion of ethical terms is new to you, you may want to read through the main text, skipping the fine points that are set off at the right in smaller type. In addition to the ethical terms that are discussed in this introduction, other more specialized ethical, legal and technical notions are introduced as needed throughout the book.

The definitions of ethical terms in this introduction follow accepted English usage closely. Sometimes, when a word has several meanings, I will use only one of these for the sake of clarity. I avoid stipulating new technical senses of words, however, for two reasons. First, the ethical distinctions marked in language express many important and often subtle distinctions which most readers will find they have been using all their lives without having thought explicitly about it. Second, part of my purpose is to prepare readers to discuss ethical problems concerns and questions with others who have never read this book a goal which would be undermined by introducing a lot of jargon. At the same time I have avoided going into ethical distinctions that are not immediately relevant to the ethics of engineering and science.

The ethical distinctions discussed here are those marked in English. These distinctions are not precisely the same as those marked in other languages, so this book itself carries the cultural perspective on ethical questions that is built into those distinctions, although I have made an effort to recognize and demonstrate some ways of expressing a variety of cultural and religious viewpoints on ethical matters.

A variety of distinctions have been drawn between the terms "moral" and "ethical." For example, philosophers often reserve the term "ethics" for the study of morality. Others, including many engineers, take "moral" to apply to private as contrasted with professional life. I make no distinction between "moral" and "ethical" in this book, precisely because of the multiplicity of distinctions in use; to use one of the distinctions would invite confusion with a host of others.

The discussion in this introduction is not intended to establish whether some act, motive or character trait is ethically acceptable, but to provide a vocabulary that is rich enough to think about and address ethical problems and make ethical judgments.

I have chosen illustrations of ethical concepts I think are relatively non-controversial. If you disagree--for example, if you consider one of my examples of a human right is not a human right at all--understand that the question of what are examples of each moral category is not supposed to be settled by this discussion. The examples are simply intended to make the concepts easier to grasp.

The problems addressed in this book arise primarily in engineering as it is practiced in the United States, Canada and similar technologically developed democracies. The point, however, is to understand ethical notions, whether or not English or some other language has ready terms for them. For example, although the term "right" was coined only in the modern period in relatively individualistic cultures, the notion of moral rights, and more specifically, of human rights, now finds widespread international acceptance. Later in this introduction I will discuss arguments for thinking that there is a culturally generalized equivalent of the notion of a moral right--that is, a notion of a right that can be defined in terms of ethical notions that are recognized in any culture.

To the extent that a notion is applicable only in a particular cultural or societal setting, it is important to recognize the cultural or political assumptions built into the notion. "Privacy" is sometimes claimed to be a notion that is applicable only in relatively individualistic societies; some languages, like Japanese, have no term for it. However, even if privacy of the individual is of great importance only in relatively individualistic societies, many of the actions that U.S. citizens object to as violations of individual privacy may be objected to as unwarranted invasions of family or clan life in other cultural settings.

***FINE POINT*** Therefore, discussions of subjects like the influence of technology on privacy may have some relevance for societies that do not emphasize the privacy of individuals. Where possible I have avoided taking a side in philosophical controversies about ethical concepts. A few of these controversies along with other fine points are briefly discussed in smaller type set off at the right.

Part 1. Values and Value Judgments
Part 2. Ethical Requirements on Action
Part 3. Moral Character and Responsibility
Part 4. Privacy, Confidentiality, Intellectual Property and the Law
Fine Points

© Copyright Whitbeck 1995