The simplest description of ethics is to describe it as a system of moral principles that govern behaviour and the conducting of an activity, ethics affects the way in which we make decisions, it affects the way we lead our lives and is concerned with what is good for individuals and society at large. The problem with ethics or to be ethical is that the term is so vague and so all inclusive that it is, in fact, unable to be a singular term and in many aspects can not accommodate to a society in whole, meaning that ethics is broken up into sub terms that follow the ethical practice of the individual over the society.
Our personal ethics are the way we form our character, we believe we are doing the right thing when we discuss personal ethics, living a good life, following responsibilities and the language of right and wrong and we each have our own personal moral decisions. For some, those moral decisions and ethics derive from religion, others may derive from culture or philosophies, the fact being that ethics is vague, it is an individual term that in reality has multiple extensions based on some of our deepest beliefs. As publishers and practitioners, we have a duty to be ethical in whatever way we can, we owe it to each other to follow an ethical path that leads the way for others, that challenges those who are ‘unethical’, and take into consideration the ethical standards of society and the individual, but to also be aware of the multiple interpretations of ethics from the themes and content we provide.
Understanding that our perception of ethics has multiple facets, when we discuss moral issues we often find that we can pinpoint disagreements, that what we disagree about is only a singular aspect of the moral issues, and that broadly speaking we agree on everything else. We can understand on a ground level that what is discussed is right or wrong but that the details of an issue, often the outcome or solution, are in fact the area of question. One thing that must also be understood when discussing ethics is that it doesn’t necessarily give the right answers, or that the answer itself is not singular and there may be many ‘right’ answers to a moral decision, and that ethics is not designed to create an answer but rather a system of conversations to better understand or clarify the issues at hand. It’s possible that the very notion of discussing ethics means that there is an issues there to begin with, that we explore the moral decisions of an issue because we are not satisfied with the current practice, this can come from individuals or as a society at large where the current understanding, or the morality of an issue is questioned because of a change in culture or information regarding certain events and practices, and this discussion of ethics is used as a tool to gain clarification.
When we look at ethics and people, our interactions regarding moral or ethical decisions are a concern about something or someone other than ourselves and our own self-interests. When we think ethically we are thinking about others, beyond ourselves and in a direction that should also be inclusive of others in the process. However, our society has increasingly become one of individualism, we are becoming more and more concerned only about ourselves and our own achievements, and when thinking ethically it no longer means to think only about others but rather to think about ones place within an ethical decision. Virtue Ethics emphasises the virtues and moral character, the original version of Virtue Ethics is exploring what it means to live a good life, how can we do right as an individual, and often meant acting on those principles, but this process has taken a turn toward the perception of others; how do I show that I am good? It is because of Virtue Ethics that we search for a source of what is right and wrong, for example a person who is religious would consider what their God wanted people to do, someone of spiritual belief may search within their own beliefs to find moral compass, but for many, the decisions of what is right and wrong come from society and culture. It is at this point that ethics and the discussions around morality in practice can be changed, if the society controls the individual perception of ethics then we are in control individually, of how we practice ethics in a society.
Ethics can be used as a weapon, for example if a group believes that a particular activity or event is ‘wrong’ then it can use morality as it’s justification to attack those who practice such activities. This can be seen throughout different areas in our society both socially and politically, and the consequences of using ethics as a weapon can be tragic, often we see people regard those on the opposite side as immoral and in some cases less human or deserving of respect. This leads to problems regarding solution, that we become so angered or focused on the attack that we lose sight of real change regarding the issue at hand, punishment often becomes the only option with no alternative or additional consequences: Should a person of mental illness who commits a great crime just be sent to prison? Do we treat pedophilia as simply a crime or a mental illness? Should we engage with violence or conversation with those who have extreme political beliefs? These are just some of the many questions being asked now but only after events have taken place where the need for discussion has become necessary, and potentially too late.
Ethical realists are those that think that human beings discover ethical truths that already have an independent existence, whereas Ethical non-realists believe that human beings invent ethical truths. One of the main problems for ethical realists is that people and society follow many different ethical codes and moral beliefs, they are influenced by different factors in their individual lives. One form of ethical realism states that; ethical properties of the world, the things that exist and remain the same regardless of what people think or feel – if thought about at all. In the 1989 book Essays in Ethical Theory, R. M Hare states,
“On the face of it, it [ethical realism] means the view that moral qualities such as wrongness and likewise moral facts such as the fact that an act was wrong, exist in rerum natura, so that, if one says that a certain act was wrong, one is saying that there existed, somehow, somewhere, this quality of wrongness, and that it had to exist there if the act were to be wrong.”
Based on the idea that there is a real objective fact, moral realism is the premise of factual information about a truth, whereas others may take a different approaches such as a more emotive, prescriptive or subjective statement when describing their moral judgments. Ultimately it is clear that our understanding of ethics no matter the language we use to portray our morality, comes from a deep and routed place in our lives, such as; God and religion, our conscience and intuition, rational moral cost-benefit analysis of actions and their effects, the example of a good human being, desires for the best for people in unique situations, popular culture and political power. It is in these areas of effect, that we should look to gain a better understanding of what ethics means within a practice that involves public distribution such as publishing, that the very act of contains not only multiple facets of importance such as content, design and language, but also that the way in which things are distributed and the nature of the company or business itself should be examined. Maybe the best way to move forward is to begin with complete transparency, that as a society we owe it to each other to create guidelines that are more relevant and examined in more depth.