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Related Words, Beliefs, Background

Worldview Theme #42: Ethical Orientation

alphabetical listing: A to K 

  alphabetical listing, continued: L to Z

Contrast Worldview Themes #42 and #43 --   these themes involve orientations, beliefs or behavior that are (more or less) diametrically opposed!

Contrast Worldview Themes #42 and #50A --   these themes involve orientations, beliefs or behavior that are (more or less) diametrically opposed!

absolute moral code -- absolute or universal standards of what is ethically or morally right or wrong. For many religious people, particularly fundamentalists, the word of God as it appears in sacred texts, provides this absolute moral authority. The opposing belief, that no such absolute or universal standards exist, is termed ethical or moral relativism.

affirmative action -- in decision making related to offering jobs or extending other opportunities to individual applicants, preferentially favoring members of some minority group to make up for this group’s past, unjust exclusion from the chance to have certain employment, educational or other opportunities.

altruism -- putting the interests, welfare, happiness, and perhaps even survival of other people or living things above one’s own interests, etc. This devotion often involves self sacrifice. In an extreme case it can even mean giving up one’s own life so that another can live.

bioethics -- ethics as applied to medicine and the biological sciences. A field that lies at the heart of dealing with many dignity and sanctity of life related controversies: doctors, medical insurers, biotechnologists “playing God”; “Brave New World” fears about cloning; environmental concerns about genetically engineered plants; animals suffering as medical researchers conduct experiments; etc

brotherhood -- an idealized situation in which people treat each other in a highly considerate way as if they were members of the same family (brothers or sisters)

common good, the--can be defined in various ways depending on one's perspective. Some define it narrowly as that which is good for every member of the community; others broaden the community here to include all human beings. While libertarians argue it is a meaningless concept, utilitarians equate it with "the greatest good for the greatest  number of individuals."

Confucianism -- an ethical system / agnostic practical philosophy based on the teachings of the 6th century BC Chinese sage, Confucious. Its key teachings include: 1) Ultimately the happiness of society rests on sincere investigation that produces relevant knowledge; 2) Happy societies are built on a foundation of disciplined individuals in disciplined families; 3) Respect for and fidelity to natural obligations, most notably to parents and family, is essential. 4) The right relationship between individuals is important, one based on sympathetic “fellow feeling”, treating those subordinate to you as you would like to be treated if you were the subordinate -- ideas which provide the basis for a Confucian Golden Rule; 5) Avoiding extremes and embracing moderation --finding a Golden Mean -- is important.

conscience--a sense of 1) what is morally / ethically right or wrong, and 2) which actions a) will produce more pleasure and happiness vs. more pain and suffering, b) will be praised vs. blamed, c)  potentially promise benefits vs. involve risks and potential liabilities.  When conscientious behavior and actual behavior diverge, guilt and feelings of remorse can result. H.L. Mencken referred to it as "the inner voice that tells us that somebody might be watching." Some connect conscience with religion: it has been termed "God's voice."  Others make no such connection.

corporate crime–corporations and/or their employees break laws and use their power to ruin lives, endanger public safety, or pollute the environment in their quest for profits.  Its negative impact on US society is great.  Russell Mokhiber, founder of the Corporate Crime Reporter, writes "The losses from a handful of major corporate frauds–Tyco, Adelphia, Worldcom, Enron –swamp the losses from all street robberies and burglaries combined.  Health care fraud alone costs Americans $100 billion to $400 billion a year.  The savings and loan fraud...cost us anywhere from $300 billion to $500 billion..." Of political campaign contri- butions & lobbyists, Mokhiber writes, "Corporate criminals are the only criminal class in the United States that have the power to define the laws under which they live." 2009 brought news of Bernie Madoff's corrupt investment firmthought to have ripped off $50 to $65 billion, and concerns about ripoff of government furnished bank bailout funds.  

distributive justice--is concerned with right or just ways to allocate the goods, benefits and burdens of economic activity to members of society.  Plans for doing this vary according to 1) what is to be distributed: wealth, income, utility, opportunity,  welfare, etc; 2) over what group is the distribution to be made;  3) how is the distribution to be made.    

ecological conscience--a term popularized by Aldo Leopold who connected it with treating the land right--in accordance with his land ethic.  More generally it involves feeling obligated to treat the natural habitat where one lives right: 1) not making a mess of it, and  2) not incurring ecological debt.  

ecosharing -- an environmental ethic for people to live by: that their own impact on the Earth’s biosphere be limited to no more than their own fair ecoshare. An ecoshare is determined by overall assessment of the human impact on the biosphere, computer models of its future condition, and necessary limits imposed by sustainability criteria.

egalitarianism -- the belief that all human beings should have the same rights, opportunities and privileges.

egoism--the belief that individual self interest is the basis for all human behavior and that this is how it ought to be.

empathy -- concisely it refers to “fellow feeling” , that is imagining that you are in the other person’s shoes and experiencing his or her feelings, struggles, etc.  Emotionally immature people, in particular those who after experiencing so much pain as children have learned how to block it, may not feel compassion for other's pain. Empathizing with others thus requires being in touch with your own feelings.

ethics -- the study of right and wrong in matters of conduct. 

ethics, deontological-- focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, rather than the consequences of those actions (as consequentialist ethics does).

ethical (or moral) relativism -- the belief that ethical guidelines or moral rules cannot be evaluated outside of the particular cultural / ethical setting to which they belong. It holds that there are no absolute or universal standards of what is ethically or morally right or wrong. Fundamentalists abhor ethical relativism. For them, the word of God as recorded in sacred religious texts provides not only rules to live by, but an absolute authority on moral questions.

ethical treatment of animals -- whether the issue is the treatment of monkeys in research labs, cows being fattened for slaughter, etc, basic minimum standards that those in charge should adhere to include 1) minimizing (if not eliminating) pain that animals under human care suffer while they are alive, and 2) making sure that their deaths are quick and merciful. To these, many would add 3) recognition that people must not just use animals, but must give something back to them in terms of their happiness and enjoyment of life, and 4) treating confined animals in a way that preserves their dignity.

ethical behavior evolutionary pyramid -- the depiction of how human ethical behavior has evolved over a long period of time (over one million years) using a pyramid. When people were little more than animals their behavior was dictated by self interest in meeting basic biological and survival needs -- depicted at the broad base of the pyramid. Amongst precivilization humans ethical behavior extended to include family and biological relatives. As culture developed and survival pressures eased, ethical behavior was extended greatly-- moving up the pyramid -- to eventually include community, tribe, regional neighbors, ethnic group, and nation. Today, at the top of the pyramid are those who feel a sense of belongingness to the whole human species and to the planet , and behave accordingly

evil, the problem of -- this problem has plagued philosophers at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. Epicurus (341-270 BC) appears to be the first to consider it at some length. Simply put, it has two aspects, one religious, one secular, that can themselves be stated as questions, First, why does an all powerful, all knowing God allow evil to exist in the world? Second, how should society fight human’s wicked and evil acts -- won’t fighting them with evil (violence, vengeance, capital punishment, etc) just result in more evil? Those who embrace non-violence, forgiveness, and oppose capital punishment basically feel that good can not come out of evil. Others argue that if evil is left unchecked and unpunished, and not countered with strong action, then more evil will result.

evolutionary ethics--approaches ethics from the role that evolution has played in shaping human behavior, including instinctual behavior.

feudal society--the dominant social order of the Middle Ages in Europe (and perhaps elsewhere) in which power was decentralized: resting in an aristocratic, land-owning elite who provided peasants with protection and land to till in exchange for labor and part of what the land produced.  The Catholic Church was heavily invested in this system: its moral authority counterbalancing the civil / military authority and associated injustice. 

Golden Rule, negative and positive formulations -- Confucius, in the 6th century BC, is generally credited with the negative version of this universal principle: "Do not do unto others what thou wouldst not they should do unto you" The Jewish sage Hillel provided a slightly different version in 30 BC: "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor."  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us the positive version: "All things whatsoever ye would men do to you, do ye even so to them."

guilt -- an emotional state produced by knowing that one has committed a breach of conduct or violated moral standards. If one accepts society’ s version of acceptable behavior, the punishment guilt produces is self administered.

happiness principle -- from moral theory, the principle that seeking happiness for oneself with someone else’s happiness in mind takes moral precedence over seeking happiness that leads to the loss of happiness for someone else.

hunter-gatherer society--one in which people derive their sustenance from wild plants and animals, and often (seasonally or otherwise) move if necessary.  Before the domestication of these resources, beginning over 10,000 years ago, all humans lived in such societies.  

justice -- implementing what is just, defined in various ways as being reasonable, proper, lawful, right, fair, deserved, merited, etc. For some, justice is intimately connected with fairness, a connection with three dimensions: equal treatment, the degree to which exercising freedom and liberty is to be allowed, and reward for contributing to the common good .

kinship metaphors -- examples of these abound: brotherhood, sister cities, fraternities and sororities, mother country and fatherland, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”, “Our Father who art in Heaven”, etc. All of these seek to extend the natural love or special treatment that exists between blood relatives to those who are unrelated. Evolutionary biologists explain the special treatment of kin in terms of relatives sharing many more genes than nonrelatives and that natural selection can work to insure survival of common, favored genes by promoting favored (altruistic behavior) treatment of relatives.

  land ethic--as first formulated by Aldo Leopold in his 1948 classic A Sand County Almanac, "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

law: civil vs. criminal--the former refers to the means by which individual rights are protected, the latter with offenses that harm (or potentially could harm) the entire community. In civil cases the responsibility for demonstrating harm and seeking remedy lies with the individual affected; in criminal cases the state must pursue violators and seek remedy--which may be imprisonment.

law: private vs. public--the former involves relationships between individuals (including corporations), the latter with issues involving the state and welfare of society (including penal law, and regulatory statutes, etc.)

liberty principle--from moral theory, a principle that states that seeking liberty for oneself with someone else’s freedom in mind takes moral precedence over seeking such liberty that leads to the loss of liberty or freedom for someone else. 

morality--knowledge, teachings and practices related to deciding the rightness or wrongness of actions, that is in making moral judgments, which together define a code of conduct for a society.

moral obligation -- the feeling of being bound to act or behave in a certain way given one’s acceptance of some moral code or set of rules.

Noble Eightfold Path, The--a practical prescription for behaving ethically, gaining meditative discipline and wisdom. The Buddha taught that following it was the way to end suffering.  

non-aggression principle--the idea, as expressed by Ayn Rand, that coercive physical force or the threat of such use against person or property should never be used first, and that its only legitimate use is for defensive purposes by individuals or by governments to punish law-breakers.  

polyamory–the practice or philosophy of having more than one loving, intimate relationship and doing so with the consent of all involved.  It promotes idealistic ethical behavior w/o jealousy & possessiveness.

prioritarians--in assigning social value to benefits, they favor benefits going to those less well off.

reciprocity (or reciprocal altruism) -- in human interaction, the idea that one good turn deserves another, or that one should return a favor. Example: If you’ll pick lice out of my hair, I’ll pick them out of yours!”

social contract--its most important meaning refers to an agreement between the people and their rulers in which the  duties and rights of each are defined and constrained.  While rulers would say it serves to maintain order, the people point to it as establishing the principle that rulers have legitimacy only if they have the consent of those they govern.   

tao / Taoism--the former is a concept from ancient China that can be thought of as the way of nature and, as related to human behavior, the path of virtuous conduct in accordance with nature; the latter refers to the Chinese mystical philosophy or folk religion built around conformity to the tao. Founded by Lao-Tzu in the 6th century BCE, Taoism is polytheist / animist / shamanist in a traditional Chinese way. Ethically it values compassion, moderation, and humility.

Ten Commandments, The--behavioral and moral rules found in the Old Testament of the Bible and important to Jews and Christians. They are traditionally believed to have been written by God and given to Moses on Mount Sinai over 3000 years ago.

Tooth and Claw Ethics / Law of the Jungle--both of these date to the late nineteenth century, the former was made famous by "Darwin's bulldog" Thomas Huxley, one of the founders of evolutionary ethics, the latter by Rudyard Kipling (perhaps influenced by the Social Darwinist currents of the time) in The Jungle Book   Earlier in that century, British poet Tennyson had characterized nature as "red in tooth and claw".  The Law of the Jungle is basically "kill or be killed".

utilitarianism -- the belief that the moral value of actions and associated outcomes should be judged according to the degree to which they are useful and benefit those affected. Utilitarians evaluate the moral rightness of actions by  the extent to which they produce the greatest benefit to all concerned. Utilitarianism has two aspects: 1) it links evaluating consequences of actions to human welfare, and accordingly, 2) how it ranks values (value theory) and ties them to human welfare. The latter involves all the complexities of arguments over what gives individuals pleasure or happiness, conflicts between individual choice and societal preference, what benefits society in the long run, etc. And it recognizes that assigning value is not merely done by adding benefits, since what is beneficial to some may be detrimental to others, and both the benefits and risks of possible actions must be weighed.

utilitarianism, act vs. rule--the former involves deciding, of available alternative actions being considered, which alternative to implement based on a calculation of which will produce the greatest utility, the latter involves following basic, generally accepted moral rules instead of basing action on (an often difficult) assessment of the utility of several different possible actions

utility -- in economic theory, this refers to the amount of use and satisfaction that a consumer gets from a particular purchase. 

universalism -- the belief in sociology that there are universal ethical standards.

value judgment -- comparing either something concrete (person, object, etc) or something abstract (quality, principle, etc) to some idealized standard. A value judgment is what bridges the gap between “what is” and “what ought to be”. Closely related is the act of valuing, which can be thought of as choosing (from alternatives) and taking appropriate action to acquire something (concrete or abstract) or hold onto it.

values -- abstract qualities, principles, beliefs, or aspects of behavior that a person or a whole society holds in high regard after making value judgments.



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