What is Ethics?
Oct 14, 2022
What is Ethics?
Have you ever had to make a difficult moral choice? Maybe you’ve wrestled with a tough hypothetical question or even considered whether your values align with how you live. Whenever we call upon our morals and values to decide on the best possible outcome, we engage with ethics. Ethics invites us to ask questions like:
What is the difference between right and wrong?
Should we organize society differently than we do now?
Is what I’m doing making the world a better place?
How do I know if I’m living my life well?
It’s not always easy or intuitive to make the right choice, and not everyone's ethical standard align, which is why studying ethics in college can help you gain problem-solving, critical thinking, and analytical skills that will bring a valuable perspective to your future career--and to your life in general! So, what can you learn from studying ethics? Keep reading to see if an ethics major is the right thing for you!
What is ethics, and why is it important to study it?
Merriam Webster defines ethics (sometimes called moral philosophy) as “a theory or system of moral values.” The term ethics also refers to “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” Ethics can refer to a system of values held by an individual, a group, or an organization or institution.
Living in a society means that there are all sorts of structures in place that are based on ethical codes and moral values. Ethics are at the root of our justice system, which involves the laws and policies that govern behavior in society. Ethics are also the driving force behind activism and social justice, which aim to make society better by examining how these systems affect people’s lives.
Ethics are important to your personal life, too! According to a study by Dr. Harvey S. James, published in the social sciences journal Kyklos, people who live lives according to their own personal ethics are, on average, much happier and more satisfied with life than people who do not. James says, “A consideration of the ethical norms of societies can improve our understanding of what contributes to the subjective well-being of people. While income, personal characteristics, and social values play a role in affecting happiness, so does the personal ethics of people.”
From Aristotle in 300 BC to Immanuel Kant in the 18th century to Angela Davis, through her modern activism fighting for civil rights, philosophers and scholars have always tried to understand the complex ways that our moral principle develops our character and manifests within society. As the world gets more and more complicated, so do the problems people face. At some point, each person would face their own ethical dilemma. Students who have a broad knowledge of ethics and who understand how their own moral value comes into play will be prepared to take on the same questions that these philosophers have considered for millennia.
What are the different kinds of ethics?
There are many different approaches to ethical decision making, all of which have different methods of argument and serve different purposes. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s guide to the types of ethics, these are some of the most commonly referenced types:
- Normative ethics seeks to establish norms or standards of conduct; a crucial question in this field is whether actions are to be judged right or wrong based on their consequences or based on their conformity to some moral judgment, such as “Do not tell a lie.”
- Metaethics is concerned with the nature of ethical judgment and theories. Since the beginning of the 20th century, much work in metaethics has focused on the logical and semantic aspects of moral language.
- Applied ethics looks at how to apply what we know about business ethics and other types of ethics to practical moral problems.
What kind of careers can you go into with a degree in ethics?
What jobs can you get with an ethics degree? The good news about studying ethics is that there are nearly endless ways to use an ethics degree. Countless industries are seeking mission-driven candidates who have a deep sense of integrity, good communication skills, and whose goals are aligned with their organizations.
Studying ethics can also give you a glimpse into the systems that shape how a human being interacts with another. By gaining insight into the most effective and equitable ways for people to work together, you can become a more thoughtful leader in your field.
According to Julie Nagashima, visiting assistant professor of ethical leadership in the department of Leadership, Ethics, and Values at North Central College, “Students who study ethics will develop important knowledge, skills, and dispositions for becoming an ethical leader. Some of these include how to lead with accountability and responsibility, engage in ethical reasoning and (ethical) decision making, work collaboratively and effectively in groups, discern and avoid destructive and corrupt behaviors, develop interpersonal skills, and cultivate one’s moral character.”
The study of ethics is one of the central tenets of law, so even if you were just wondering how to be a paralegal, expect to have an ethics course. A degree in ethics can help you stand out in fields that require thoughtful analysis and good reasoning skills. Consider whether you’d be interested in career options like:
- Social justice
- Environmental justice
- Public policy
- Social services
- Human rights officer
- Nonprofit and NGO management
- Medical ethics
- Human resources
- Business and professional ethics
- Corporate accountability
- Organizational leadership
Pursuing an Ethics Degree
Taking classes in a major like Leadership, Ethics and Values will give you valuable experience working through the ethical questions facing leaders today. Nagashima notes that “Leadership is an important quality that we hope all our students at North Central College will cultivate through their various curricular and co-curricular activities. In the department of Leadership, Ethics, and Values, we offer various opportunities for students to engage, practice, and learn about leadership and to enhance their interpersonal and professional skills.”
Classes in ethics-adjacent subjects like philosophy and great books programs like the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College also provide the kind of discussion-based environment where students can explore big questions and talk through moral dilemmas. By gaining hands-on experience listening and engaging with your classmates, you can use the wisdom of the past to address the questions of the modern world.
If you like working through difficult questions, exploring your personal moral value and guiding principle, seeking equitable treatment for everyone in our society, and trying to make the world a better place, then you’ll have no dilemma when choosing to major in ethics!
Sophie Juhlin is the assistant director of admissions for the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College. She graduated from the Shimer school with a degree in French and humanities.
Singer, P. (2022, August 16). Ethics. Encyclopedia Britannica.
James, H. Sr. Is the Just Man a Happy Man?
Merriam Webster. Ethics.