New column tests your ethics

How do you feel when you hear the word ethics? Vaguely uncomfortable? If so, then youre not alone. Our discomfort can be partly because when someone starts talking about ethics we can feel a bit guilty without being at all sure why. It might be because were not sure exactly what ethics is about.

Actually, ethics is not at all scary. What can be challenging is making ethical choices in our daily lives. That is what this column is about.

At its simplest, ethics is about what is the right thing to do. When we say that someone should or should not do something we are making an ethical statement based on our beliefs about what is right. What we believe to be right has something to do with societal norms, those things that are generally accepted as true and obvious ways to behave as well as our own personal values. A value statement like you should work hard is fundamentally different from a persuasive statement like You should dye your hair purple!

Ethics is part of an ongoing and millennia-old discussion about what is right and what it means to be a good person and part of a civilised society. Our ethics, values and belief systems are what form our personal world views and these things change.

However, there are persistent elements to ethics that remain largely unchanged across time and culture: so much so that we could think of these as obvious and true. Yet, it doesnt take much before things are a lot less obvious, let alone true. Take an example: you should not kill another person.

Not killing each other is widely accepted as an obvious behaviour of civilised humans in a civilised society. A moments thought, however, and we can add a few exceptions: except if you are at war; except if you are defending yourself against someone trying to kill you; except if the person has been sentenced to death. So, to our simple statement you should not kill another person an implied under normal circumstances is added. What constitutes normal circumstances is of course a matter for debate. Thats where ethics gets interesting.

For some people, there is no debate. There is only one statement: We should do what God or Allah or Shiva or Buddha or our guru has told us to do. Religion provides a set of ethical principles authorised by a higher authority (god). Whether we are religious or not, it is not often that we think carefully about ethical principles and what we should do, unless we are in a new or difficult situation.

In this column, Ethically Speaking, we will explore issues where what we should do is not obvious or is hotly debated. Well also look at some of the circumstances where what is obvious and true is being challenged.

There are three of us contributing to this column: Geoff Lamberton, Robert Cunningham, and myself, Liz Baker. We dont always agree so we hope you find our discussions and different viewpoints interesting and stimulating.

Ethically Speaking will run fortnightly on alternative weeks to Psychologically Speaking with Stewart Hase.

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