Why care about ethics?

In the last module, we considered two competing views of what the purpose of corporations is—whether businesses have only the obligation to generate profits, or whether they have obligations to serve various stakeholders. This question is an ethical one. Whenever we start talking about obligations that are not generated by the law, we are talking about ethics.

So we want to know what ethical obligations or responsibilities you would have as a businessperson. Even if you think that your only responsibility is to the shareholders, that's still an ethical responsibility. So we have to ask: How do you know whether your actions are good ones or evil ones? How do you know if you are acting the way you should, if you are doing the right thing? If you can figure those things out, then you'll know what responsibilities you have, and to whom.

The area of philosophy that deals with questions about how we should act and how we should live is called ethics. When we talk about ethics we talk about morality, the rightness and wrongness of people and their actions. We’ll say things like “that action is morally wrong”, or “this person is morally good”. Since it’s easy to confuse “right and wrong” in the sense of “morally right and morally wrong” and “right and wrong” in the sense of “correct and incorrect”, we’ll need some special terms to use when we talk about ethics. But we’ll come back to that later.

Even though ethics-talk is usually about actions and their moral rightness or wrongness, the study of ethics is not exactly the study of actions themselves, but the study of how we judge actions—what principles we use to decide whether actions are good or bad or in between. So the most basic question to ask in ethics is “What makes actions right or wrong?”

Everyone has their own answer to this question, but not everyone could really give reasons to explain it. Psychologists will tell you that young children first learn right and wrong by responding to rewards and punishments from their parents or other caregivers. Later in life, they learn to reason about what is right and wrong on their own, according to some principles. What psychologists won’t tell you is which principles are the correct ones. Of course, you don’t have to use principles to guide your actions. You could just do whatever you feel like doing all the time. Maybe you don’t do that because you’d get in trouble with the law. So you could just follow the law. You could continue like a child and do whatever an authority tells us, and when the authority isn’t around, you just do whatever you feel like doing.

Of course, I don’t think anyone actually lives like that. It would be very hard to get ahead in life if you did literally whatever you felt like doing any time there was no one to punish you. And you probably wouldn’t have a very good life, because no one is going to put up with those kind of antics for very long. We (adults) usually use some kind of principles to decide what we should do and what we shouldn’t. And those principles are going to be part of your worldview.