The email question:
Hi Paul. After a conversation this evening, in which I took a bit of an extreme stance on a particular issue, I wanted to ask for your expertise on this issue. How can we know whether something is an ethical or moral issue, or a human rights issue, or just a simple matter of opinion? And then the next logical question is, “How does that play into politics and towing the party line?”
The only time I’ve really had to deal with ethics was related to medical ethics but doctors have a code by which they are required to abide and that was how our decisions were made. I realize this could be a complicated question, but if you have a way to simplify it, I would really appreciate it. Best regards, Nicole
Dear Nicole. I think there is a simple approach to thinking about this. It is the answers that are hard. Although there are many ways to look at this, you may consider this framework:
· Morals as defining the “good and bad”. These are the values.
· Ethics as considering what one “ought or ought not to do” in terms of those moral values.
· Ethics would suggest that one balances such as; laws, with consequences (maximize the good, minimize the bad), with humanitarian concerns ( the ethic of care) and with virtue ethics ( the values of the organization, ie respect, honesty, non-violence, etc). These are the four main elements of ethical decisions.
· It is helpful to you look at the law as simply the codification of those ethics in situations of significant impact to society. We do not make laws about everything.
Then enter some issue such as human rights, and we find that human rights is loaded with ethical considerations: ie.
· Laws: There are many laws and charters of rights and freedoms that compel us to give serious weight to human rights.
· Consequences: Violations of human rights have a real potential for harm. As a general consideration, any harm should be minimized.
· Humanitarian concerns: People are granted moral worth simply because they are human beings. As such the ethic of care becomes a moral responsibility. It is a moral value that harming others is not a good idea, and the moral sense of the reasonable person, or of a healthy society, does not condone the abuse of human rights. There is a general duty to protect others who are helpless or vulnerable.
· Organizational values: Values by organizations or political parties are often framed to require the values such a honesty, respect people, non-violence, etc.
· Our personal values will also say something based on beliefs, religions, cultural influences, or even professional values such as held by doctors, etc.
All this is turned over in your mind, consciously or sub-consciously, and your sense of reason tells you something, and your emotive sense also tells you something. Logically a solution may make sense, or maybe a solution just feels right or wrong. You have to decide, act and be responsible and accountable for your behavior or decision. Life can be hard, as solutions are usually not perfect and harm free. This is what it means to be a human being, making hard and imperfect choices sometimes.
The phrase “matter of opinion” may speak to the weight you give in the decision for your personal values, or an emotive response, which you always bring to the issue whether you like it or not. The question is your awareness of this, how much weight you give to this, and whether you should compromise or put personal values aside or not. This may depend on whether the issue is trivial, or important, or very serious, regarding such as serious harm and what your perceptions of personal safety or fears of reprisals, may tell you. For example, society does not expect you to jump in and try to save a drowning person if you cannot swim. But society expects you to do something, ie call for help, etc.
Now when we mix in politics and pressure to “tow the party line” and other factors come into play:
Case 1: Do we share the party line on the concerns or does the party allow exceptions? If values are shared, then there is usually little problem.
Case 2: The next question is whether the party should be legitimately deciding for everyone on certain moral values. I have written a comment on “issues of conscience” and party platforms. I state that politicians have no business making pronouncements for issues that are morally ambiguous, ie, where there is no right answer. For example, abortion, since we do not know when a person (a person with human rights) exists in the reproductive cycle, then we should not guess, or be politically motivated. If you know, I will get you the Noble Peace Prize by Saturday. So the most honest and respectful response is to let members apply the shared party values and decide for themselves. That way the party can accommodate reasonable religious and cultural differences in a way that is honest. Since significant doubt clearly exists, perhaps the reasonable person will give the benefit of the doubt to life. It is their choice and we should not polarize the party over issues for which we have no answers.
Case 3: We disagree on an important issue in which the facts are reasonably clear, or maybe what you consider the best course of action has not been chosen. This may involve choices such as relating to environmental policy choices, tax policy choices, or how we tackle the cigarette issue. If we disagree, then we should ask ourselves if we should remain a member of the organization or not, or work very hard to responsibly change policy. A safe and respectful way for exercising responsible moral voice should be important to any organization.
Sorry for the long answer, but from the above, the short answer is:
· We can conclude that human rights is a very significant ethical issue.
· Ethical issues have the potential for harm, uncertainty, or competing values, with considerations of laws, consequences, care for others and values.
· Your opinion is a reflection of your personal values, your capacity for moral reasoning, and your emotive response.
· You are always accountable for your moral decisions. Politics and “party lines” are no excuse for unethical behavior. Sometimes even politicians get it wrong. There must be some consensus between personal and party values, or some hard choices are inevitable. Know yourself. Have courage. Always seek to do the right thing.
Hope this helps. Paul