A Practical Guide for Ethical Discussion

When we think of ethics, we think of them in relation to morals.  What are morals and what are ethics?  One way we can look at the two is to consider morals as behavior according to custom and we can look at ethics as behavior according to reason or reflection.

In other words, morals are those things we know innately, through modeling and experience in community.  Morals can stretch over different venues and customs and morally speaking, it can be difficult to figure out just how we should act or just exactly, “what we are all about.”  This is where ethics come in.  Without some process of thought, discussion and discernment, we can become confused.  Ethics are the process through which we examine and discuss our morals.

We can consider morality as having to do with human behavior and ethics as reflecting on and engaging in constructive conversation about that behavior.  The reason we practice ethics at all is to define how we actually make moral decisions.

Considering the prominence of reason and discussion for ethics, it pays to have some ground rules established for this conversation because when we deal with matters of morals and ethics, we are dealing in the affective realm of thought.  We are passionate about our values and moral beliefs.  Passion digs deep and triggers all kinds of emotions.

First and foremost in discussing ethics, agreement is not the objective.  We do not necessarily have to agree with everything that is put forth in an ethical conversation, in fact, there should be some disagreement just on the basis of values, context and cultural background.  Although we acknowledge there will be lack of agreement on content, we absolutely must agree that an ethical conversation requires respect and trust.

I offer the following considerations for constructive ethics conversations:

Listen.  We each hear things differently, if we spend our time truly listening to the person talking rather than planning our next statement or strategy, our responses will make the conversation richer in perspective and more respectful.

One at a Time.  A conversation where more than one person talks at a time is an argument.  Let the person speaking finish.  If you are the person speaking, be respectful and do not filibuster.

Be Authentic.  In the course of an ethical conversation, we are talking about core values and how they shape our decisions.  Our participation should not be to please any person or espouse a certain viewpoint.  We need to share our perspective honestly and frankly, using tact.  Any comments should be from our own perspective.

Be Prepared to Answer, “Why?”  Socrates said, “An unexamined life is a life not worth living.”  The gist of this is that when we examine our morals and discuss them, we are trying in a sense to figure out where we are morally.

If we are about to explain a value or choice apologetically, it makes sense that we should be able to explain why we hold the value.  We should be able to reasonably explain our beliefs and values when the question “why?” is asked.  Ethical conversation goes much deeper than parroting a thought we heard or read somewhere and thought was interesting.

Everyone has a perspective worth hearing.  No matter what our background, we all tend to have a narrow view when it comes to ethics and values.  The view is shaped by experiences, upbringing, awareness and community.  As we expand these areas by having healthy ethical conversations outside of our usual circle of influence, we grow as people and are able to better reason through decisions.

We do not have to agree with everyone, but we do need to respectfully listen and to test our values and morals.  Expanding perspective furthers growth and allows us to measure where we are at in our eternal existence.