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How Ethics Works

How Ethics Works

Ethics is the consideration of what action is the best. This can be fairly straightforward when we only consider ourselves and there aren’t any significant unknown factors. But even under these restrictions, an ethical analysis can become complex. Consider this scenario:

We can travel for one day to a location where there is one gallon of water, a one day supply.
We can travel for three days to a location in the opposite direction where there are three gallons of water, a three day supply.

Three gallons of water sounds better than one gallon, but it depends upon on the level of current need. If we’ve already gone without any water for two days, the only correct answer is the one gallon option because we probably won’t make it three days without water to the three gallon location.

This serves to point out that there may be several good answers depending on other factors, specially time. So, we need to categorize our choices according to need and time. Immediate survival needs can be categorized as SURVIVE, less immediate needs that will prevent us from sliding back into survival mode can be categorized as SUSTAIN, and a choice that fulfills even more long term needs at a higher level can be categorized as ENHANCE.

Consider these three options:

  1. SURVIVE – one gallon of water, one day distance
  2. SUSTAIN – ten gallons of water, three days distance
  3. ENHANCE – a well of water, ten days distance

We want to get to the well of water, but whether or not we can depends on the direction of each source and our current condition and water supply. The ideal solution would be if the one gallon option could enable us to reach the ten gallon option and that in turn would enable us to reach the well of water.

This shows that even restricting ethical considerations to only our own needs can become complex. Most ethical considerations involve far more than just ourselves. In ethical analysis it’s useful to use a semantic map of concentric circles. SELF begins at the center and is normally the starting point. Outward beyond SELF, is OTHERS and several possible layers of groups of OTHERS. In most cases, the inner group of others is a family group. This may be surrounded by layers of larger groups, like social and religious and political organizations. Outside of this circle is a layer that can be called LIFE. It can be subdivided into Human, Species, and All Life. Beyond this are layers designated as MATERIAL and SPIRITUAL. The MATERIAL circle includes all things of material existence including time and space and energy. The SPIRITUAL layer includes things that go beyond material existence. This is where core principles and beliefs are found that often drive ethical considerations across the rest of the scheme.

  • SELF
  • LIFE
    • Human
    • Species
    • All Life

Here is a graphical diagram of this scheme:



Our analysis of ethics normally begins at the center with consideration of SELF first and SURVIVE first. Then it goes beyond SURVIVE to SUSTAIN and ENHANCE at each layer moving outward. Trying to balance the effects of action choices across all the layers to find an optimum outcome is the goal.

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