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What is Ethics?

How can you move from ethical awareness to ethical action? The Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State can help guide you and give you some tools to help in both your professional and personal lives.
by rjp218 Sep 24, 2015
Contributors: Michael D. Burroughs

But what is ethics? There are many answers to this question given that numerous ethical theories and conceptions of ethics exist. At the Rock we often discuss ethics in terms of moral literacy, the resources that encourage moral agency—by moving from ethical awareness to ethical action through cultivating ethical purpose—and help us to become ethical leaders in every aspect of our lives.

We offer the following guide to moral literacy to help faculty, students, staff, administrators, and other members of our community to sort through the complex ethical issues we face together. 

Moral Literacy

We are often faced with unexpected and complicated situations that require that we speak up and take appropriate action. The best way we can prepare ourselves for these situations is to develop the skills involved in moral literacy.

Moral literacy involves several important abilities:

Ethics Spotting: the ability to recognize that a situation involves ethical issues and to appreciate the ethical values underlying that issue. Questions to consider in working to spot ethical issues include:

      • Are we proud or ashamed of the action? Does it “feel wrong”?
      • Is such an action compatible with our basic ethical values such as integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, responsibility, and accountability?

Ethical Salience: awareness of the ethical intensity of the issue or situation. Not all violations of ethical values and principles are of comparable magnitude. Being able to judge the ethical intensity includes:

      • Recognition of the centrality of underlying values to the individual or community.
      • An appreciation of the seriousness of the resulting harms.
      • An awareness of the likelihood that harm will result.
      • An understanding of the numbers of people adversely affected.

Ethical Reasoning Skills: these are skills that we each need to develop and refine throughout our lifetime and which enable us to appreciate more fully the specific principles and values that guide our judgment in making ethical decisions. Ethical reasoning skills involve assessing ethical considerations by reflecting on the following:

      • What are the relevant ethical duties in this instance?
      • Who and what will be impacted by an action? (Who are the stakeholders?)
      • What consequences might result from acting in a particular way?
      • Is this action based on values that we fully endorse?
      • What would a caring person do in this instance?

Moral Imagination: the moral imagination is a blend of cognitive and affective factors that help us develop a sensitivity for how our actions affect others and enable us to think creatively about solutions. These factors include:

      • The ability to imagine ourselves in the situation of others
      • The capacity to “think outside the box” and come up with creative alternatives to habitual action
      • The development of sensitive attunement to the complexities of the situation

To produce real results, ethical literacy must be paired with moral agency. Individuals will choose a particular moral action only if they are convinced both of its importance and of their own capability to act in this way. The role of ethics education is not to stipulate behavior but to stimulate purpose.

Moral Agency is cultivated and encouraged through:

Ethical Purpose: developing a sense of one’s role in the moral domain.

Personal “ownership” and habituation of ethical behavior through:

    • Taking responsibility for ones actions,
    • Cultivating virtuous habits, and
    • Developing a passion for justice.

Moral Courage: the ability to act ethically even in the face of adversity and cost to one’s self.
Moral Hope: the belief that we can make a difference.
Moral Responsibility: the commitment to acting ethically.

Ethical Leadership includes:

  • Leading by example through being a role model for ethical behavior.
  • Taking the initiative to help others appreciate ethical issues, embrace moral purpose, and encourage moral agency.
  • Participating in the creation of an ethical culture that encourages and supports those who speak up in defense of the integrity of the community and those who stand up to the pressures capable of tempting any one of us to act in ways that undermine the pursuit of our common goals.

We at the Rock appreciate that:

  • Ethical decisions are often difficult decisions.
  • The ethical choice sometimes comes with a cost or a risk to one’s self or others.
  • We often have to act without sureness that our actions are the right ones, but we must do our best to act ethically and to take responsibility for our actions should we make a mistake.
  • Being an ethical person or an ethical leader sometimes means admitting to one’s own errors, taking responsibility for mistakes, doing what we can to rectify the situation, and learning from our errors.

For additional moral literacy resources, see our “What is Moral Literacy?” module. In addition, the Rock Ethics Institute "Everyday Ethics" webpage provides an informal online forum for community-wide ethical deliberation concerning issues and challenges faced at Penn State and beyond.