Doing Ethics: concerns & procedures
© 2004 Edward G. Rozycki

For though myself be a ful vicious man,
A moral tale yet I yow telle can. -- Chaucer


See, also,
Models of Reasoning
Ethical Argument, Practical Proposal




Introduction: The trivialization of "ethical" language

Basic ethical skills

What are ethical issues?

What about intentions?

Are objectives relevant?

Case Analysis

Poor Arnold: ten cases of punishment or cruelty or ...?

What is it to know how to use a principle?

Different kinds of principles

Prioritizing principles

Constellations of principles


The toolbox metaphor

Final Exercise




Introduction: the trivialization of "ethical" language

Incompetence in ethical deliberation leads to the widespread misconceptions that concerns with ethics are mere expressions of feeling [1] , or hypocrisy, or that it is really might that makes right.

In daily life, people indiscriminately use the term, "obligation" to cover many possibilities. You have probably heard the following conversation:

"I'll need your help today at three o'clock."

"Sorry, I already have an obligation to be elsewhere at three."

Is that a good reason for denying someone help? Not every obligation is of equal importance. And, certainly, not every obligation is an ethical obligation.

Another example of the specious use of ethical language is given by a person, who trying to curry favor with the boss, tattles about minor infractions of office rules:

"John didn't sign out when he left for the men's room like we are all supposed to! I felt obliged to mention it to Mr. Wilson."

Is any old set of rules necessarily reasonable? Is the danger posed by ignoring a trivial or burdensome regulation so great as to warrant undermining a person's status in the office community and opening him up to possibly overweening or unjust sanction?

Finally, is any obligation whatsoever to be accepted at face value just because it is imposed on us by circumstance? Don't we have a moral obligation to examine what obliges us, and how; and, whether we will accept that obligation?

Basic Ethical Skills

What passes for ethical education in our culture tends to be restricted to either narrowly sectarian, dogmatically taught training on "morality" issues, or band-aid approaches evoked by public disclosures of corporate wrong-doing. Also, visits to a stratosphere of "ethical principles" are forced on school kids or college undergraduates who cannot avoid the latest fad in values education. Such approaches seldom, if at all, develop competency in ethical deliberation. In fact, they tend to develop a reactive distaste for ethics in their victims.

 This article  intends to serve as a introduction to acquiring ethical skills and insight. The basic skills one must acquire to handle ethical issues competently are:

1. The ability to distinguish ethical from other kinds of issues, e.g. prudential, legal, organizational, etc.;

2. The ability to reason using problematic cases and ethical principles; and,

3. The ability to prioritize competing ethical principles.

Let us examine each of these more thoroughly.

What are ethical issues? [2]

You could look up definitions. It probably won't hurt. You might try to sort out the following statements of advice. Which are ethical statements? What kinds of statements are the others? Are they prudential, legal, organizational? Are they rules that help constitute a game, or procedure? Can you tell the difference? Consider:

a. You should avoid using too much salt in your food.

b. You should mix more yellow into that darker shade of green.

c. You should let people finish talking before you begin to answer.

d. You should try using a heavier barbell for the curl.

e. You should expect no more from others than you would from yourself.

f. You should not declare your family dinners as a tax deductible.

g. You should get here on time.

h. You shouldn't discharge that rifle here.

i. You should move the knight to a square of the opposite color.

We might be able to guess what kind of advice they are likely to be. At first pass, we get

a. You should avoid using too much salt in your food. Medical? Culinary?

b. You should mix more yellow into that darker shade of green . Artistic. Contractual?

c. You should let people finish talking before you begin to answer . Manners? Cultural adaptation?

d. You should try using a heavier barbell for the curl. Weight training?

e. You should expect no more from others than you would from yourself. Moral? Motivational?

f. You should not declare your family dinners as a tax deductible. Legal? Prudential?

g. You should get here on time. Organizational ?

h. You shouldn't discharge that rifle here. Legal? Organizational ?

i. You should move the knight to a square of the opposite color . Constitutive (of chess.)? Artistic?

Getting a definitive answer isn't obvious. One of the problems we immediately encounter is that no context is given to statements a through h. Under what circumstances is the statement being made? But, does it really matter if you know the precise circumstances? One perspective on ethical theory has it that ethical statements tend to be generally independent of particular circumstances. Does that theory help us to classify statements a through h?

What about intentions?

Another perspective on ethics has it that we have to know something about the intentions of the actors to determine how to classify the statements. Also, say others, we should know the possible consequences of what following or not following the advice given would be. Take the statement

a. You should avoid using too much salt in your food.

This sounds, on the face of it, like medical advice. Now, it may be imprudent, for health reasons, for you to consume high levels of salt, but is it necessarily unethical?

However, suppose you are the cook for a school. Other people -- some with medical conditions --will be eating your food. Does this additional information make a difference in your analysis of the statements?

Consider statement f:

f. You should not declare your family dinners as a tax deductible.

Suppose the person who says this to you continues with,

"…It is too easy for the IRS to catch you on such a deduction."

Would we say that this person is concerned with the ethics of your deduction?

Are objectives relevant?

Another exercise: Try to get a handle on the possible ways of classifying the statements by preceding them with " In order to X, …" where X is some objective you might want to consider. For example,

I. In order to keep your blood pressure down, …

Clearly some combinations are easier to imagine going together than others:

I-a: In order to keep your blood pressure down, you should avoid using too much salt in your food.

This would be normally taken to be medical rather than ethical advice, unless you could connect it to some further ethical goal. For example,

Many people depend upon you for their continued well-being, physically and morally. You need to stay healthy as long as possible, so you can continue your important work with them. High blood pressure will substantially shorten your life. In order to keep your blood pressure down, you should avoid using too much salt in your food.

Another example would be

II. In order to impress people as a person of character, …

We combine this with g to yield,

II-g: In order to impress people as a person of character, you should get here on time.

What can we make of this? Is the community involved so focused on punctuality that they consider it an issue of character? It would seem so from the advice. But is punctuality more important than truthfulness, or kindness, or helpfulness? Moreover, is the advice to be taken as a suggestion as to how to meet the community's expectations or merely to dupe them into believing you are a "person of character?"

Case Analysis

We have to slow down here. We can see that although statements may be roughly categorizable as ethical or not, it really depends on the context in which they are used to enable us to understand how they are being used. For this reason, many ethicists feel that the way to come to understand ethics is not by analyzing individual words or statement, but by examining broader contexts. [3] We should examine longer narratives. This kind of examination is called case analysis. [4]

The basic technique is this:

a. Decide what the focus of our concern is. For example, we could try to determine whether a case dealt with an ethical as opposed to a prudential issue. (In the examples given in the next section we will be concerned whether the cases of ones of punishment or cruelty , or both.)

b. Let's imagine we will use a scale from 1 to 5 for each category, where the following interpretations are given to the numbers: 1 = definitely not; 2 = perhaps not; 3 = unclear; 4 = perhaps so, 5 = definitely so.

c. The case we consider is a situation described as simply as possible to avoid distractive embellishments, yet fully enough to get to the "core" of the matter. If we are not sure which way we are going here, it is better to err on the side of embellishment.

d. Bring into consideration other similar, but not identical cases.

c. Each individual in the group should, by themselves, rank all cases as ethical from 1 to 5 and prudential from 1 to 5.

d. Each participant should explain to the others why he or she differs on a specific case from someone else. (Don't ask for explanations for why they agree!)

e. List these reasons for the differences. These, in effect, are conditions which define the important case variables.

Let's look more deeply into this in the next section.

Poor Arnold: ten cases of punishment or cruelty or ...?

Let us consider the following case described by:

Case 1: 5 year-old Arnold is bitten by a squirrel after pinching his sister and running out into the backyard.

Using the following scale:

1 = definitely not; 2 = probably not; 3 = unclear; 4 = probably so; 5 = definitely so

What number would you assign to this case being one of punishment, that is, Arnold is being punished?

Case 1 we will call the "prima facie" case, assuming what is given to be basic facts about the situation.

Different people may classify this differently, depending upon the assumptions they make about the situation that are not explicitly given in the prima facie description. Someone who understands the squirrel bite to be a non-related occurrence would probably judge the situation to be a 1 or 2. Another, suppose, very religious, person might see the squirrel as an instrument of God's will and thus give the case a 4 or 5 – assuming, of course, that God would find pinching one's little sister to be worthy of punishment.

Suppose we decide that it is prima facie, a 1 = definitely not punishment.

What additional information might we discover that would make us revise our judgment to, say, a four or five? For example, if we found out that Arnold's mother had trained a squirrel to bite on command and used it on Arnold because he pinched his sister, wouldn't this cause us to revise our judgment? This highly unlikely addition to our stock of information, were it to be established, would, we will say, defeat our judgment that that case was not one of punishment. The new information would count as a defeating condition for the prima facie judgment that punishment had not occurred.

By way of contrast, any possible new information that strengthens our initial judgment based on the prima facie evidence, we will call a supporting condition. For example, suppose the squirrel bite took place two weeks later than the pinching and it was after Arnold had already been bitten by a dog in the interim. This information, if we could establish it as fact, would support our original judgment.

For the examples below, indicate conditions which would defeat or support the case example and the rendered judgment. Indicate how likely, in your judgment, the new condition is, using the terms highly likely, somewhat likely, possible, not likely, very unlikely .





Example 1. 5 year-old Arnold is bitten by a squirrel after pinching his sister and running out into the backyard.

1 = definitely not a case of punishment .

 Arnold's mother uses trained squirrels to bite her children when they are bad.

Very unlikely.

The squirrel bit Arnold because Arnold grabbed its tail.

Somewhat likely.

Example 2. 5 year-old Arnold is sent to his room by his mother after pinching his sister.

5 = definitely a case of punishment .

Arnold's mother doesn't know about the pinching. She wants him to clean his room.


Arnold's mother is aware of the situation and had warned him earlier about pinching anyone.

Somewhat likely.

3. Mrs. Smith slaps her 5-year old son, Arnold, three times on the buttocks vigorously because she enjoys doing it.

2 = probably not punishment





4. 5 year-old Arnold is bitten by a squirrel after pinching his sister and running out into the backyard.

5 = probably a case of punishment .





5. 5 year-old Arnold is sent to his room by his mother after pinching his sister.

2 = probably not punishment


6. "Please watch my seat while I get a soda," says Jack to Sam seated nearby.

1 = definitely not a case of violence


7. Jack, while boxing with Sam, knees him in the groin.

5 = definitely a case of violence .


8. Sparring at karate, Jack blocks Sam's kick to his stomach and delivers a hard punch to the side of Sam's headgear

3 = not clear whether it is a case of wrongdoing .


9. Jack "drops in " on  Sam just as Sam is preparing dinner.

1 = definitely not a case of wrongdoing .


10. Not wanting to intrude although seeing Mary was upset, Sam waited until she brought up the topic to offer his support.

5 = definitely a case of wisdom .


11. Not wanting to intrude although seeing Mary was upset, Sam waited until she brought up the topic to offer his support.

5 = definitely a case of sensitivity .


12. Furious that it wouldn't start, Sam kicked his car in the bumper and broke his toe.

2 = probably not a case of wisdom


More exercises are available for you to practice case analysis. [5]

What is it to know how to use a principle?

Here is the method for learning what a principle is and how it functions.

1 . State the principle. For example: We cannot be obligated to do what it is logically or physically impossible to do .

2. Explain the critical terms in the principle:

e.g. "logically possible" means "can be formulated without self-contradiction." For example, "speak loudly without disturbing others" is logically possible. But not, "speak loudly without making a sound."

What it is physically impossible to do will depend on one's beliefs about how the physical world works, e.g. most people would accept that it is physically impossible to travel back in time, or be in two different places at the same time.

3. Give specific example of an application of the principle, e.g.

No one can oblige us to feed oatmeal to the dead, or to be both in New York and Washington, D. C. at noon on October 12, 2006.

4. Contradict the principle , e.g. The logical or physical impossibility of performing some act does not relieve us of the obligation to perform it.

5. Give examples of the contradicted principle , e.g., "Even though it is impossible for us who right now find themselves in New York to perform CPR on a person right now lying in the street in San Francisco, we are obliged to give that person CPR right now.

6. Give reasons, if possible, for accepting the principle, e.g. For a logical contradiction, we could not achieve our "goal;" e.g. painting a wall completely black and completely white. Also, it makes no sense to ask a person to do what they could never even learn to do because it is physically impossible, e.g. wrap their arms around the Earth at the equator and clasp their hands on the other side from them.

7. Given reasons, if possible, for rejecting the principle , e.g. in this case, there do not seem to be any. (But, sometimes we have to look hard.)

8. Tell how accepting the principle helps us think rationally or opens up possibilities for action, e.g. we needn't worry that we have obligations to meet just because someone tells us that the Law, or Morality, or Someone Important wants us to X. We can examine whatever this X is to see if it is logically non-contradictory and physically performable.

9. Tell how rejecting the principle restricts possibilities for thought or action , e.g. If we believe that we have a basic duty to prevent evil, then we become obligated to prevent even evils beyond our control. Any evil occurrence, no matter how remote, is our fault.

10. Find two other principles one of which is more important, the other, less important than the principle being evaluated. (Examples would require argument so cannot just be simply indicated. The importance may also be situational. Is it possible that another principle might not be compatible with the principle under consideration?)

Here are some other principles you might want to investigate with the above ten steps:

1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

2. Look out for number one.

3. If it feels good, it is good.

4. Don't belch at the dinner table.

5. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

6. Whatever increases the happiness of the greatest number of people should be done.

7. Whenever you feel afraid, just hold your head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect you're afraid.

8. Only act in such a way that the principle of your action could become a universal law.

9. You stick your right foot in; you stick your right foot out. You stick your right foot in and you shake it all about.

10. All suspected cases of child abuse must be reported to the proper authorities.

Different kinds of principles

It is quite clear from the exercise immediately preceding that there are different kinds of principles and the circumstances in which they can be said to impose an obligation on us are quite varied. Use a dictionary or other source to help distinguish the following:

Moral principles

Legal principles

Organizational principles

Rules of games (constitutive principles)

Can you sort out the principles given in the last section among these categories? Are there possibilities of double entry, i.e. a principle that fits into more than one category? Can you think of other kinds of principles and an example for each one, e.g. principles of good grammar; principles of safe driving, etc.?

Prioritizing principles

Consider the following unhappy story.

You are acquainted with Harry Fuller whom you have known only casually for a long time but who has impressed you as a gentle, honest person. After returning from vacation one year, you find out that Harry has been accused of murder, tried and sentenced to death by a jury likely biased against Harry on account of his race.

However, Harry has recently escaped from prison. You have information that might establish an alibi for Harry at the time of the murder; however, Harry cannot afford a lawyer and the police refuse to listen to you because you are not native to the area and are of the same race as Harry.

Harry shows up late one night on your doorstep asking for shelter and help with escaping out of the country.

A. What conditions in the story above impose what obligations upon you? Can you state those obligations as general principles?

B. How would you prioritize those principles? Would those priorities change if the circumstances of the story changed? For example, supposed you knew Harry to be a liar and a violent person? Or suppose there were no death penalty? Or suppose it were Harry's brother coming to you to ask your help? Suppose racial bias were not an issue? Work through these different possibilities and observe how the priorities change.

Constellations of principles

There are theorists who claim that ethics are situational. By this they mean that what is ethically correct depends on the situation; there are no universally applicable principles. The insight we derive from this theory, however, is often mischaracterized by the term "relativism," as though theoretically anything imaginable might be ethically permitted and that principles themselves were useless. But there is a way around this threat of relativism that recognizes special circumstance yet need not give up on the possibility of general ethical principles. Our story of Harry Fuller's travails indicates a possible solution.

Why focus on individual ethical principles? Why not consider constellation of principles whose rankings may depend upon the situation - this is not the same as "situational ethics"? It might have the form of

1. If my personal survival is not at stake, then, a, b, c.....(where a, b and c represent principles.)

2. If the survival of a loved one is not at stake, then b, a, d, c

3. If the survival of another human being is not at stake, ...

4. If  X is not at stake, then .....

5. If  Y is not at stake, then ....

 6. If...

And so on, where X and Y are prioritized (here I have place survival as top priority) with respect to other values. Clearly what is important here is not just individual ethical principles, but some theory for ranking priorities of values. Developing such a theory is a task for another time.

The Toolbox Metaphor

Consider that principles of action, be they ethical, legal, whatever, are "tools" in our "decision-making toolbox." What tools should we carry in our tool box?

One way of answering this question would be to consider the kinds of jobs we would most likely be called on to do and how frequently each kind occurs with respect to the others. A toolbox for an electrician will be different from that of a plumber or auto mechanic. But yet, there may be some common elements, e.g. a screwdriver, or a tape measure.

What kinds of decisions will we, each of us, be involved in the course of our lives, professional, public and personal? Will certain tools, i.e. principles, be common in all arenas. Will others be very specific to one?  Will we have a basic set of principles whose priority of use varies with the circumstance? Or will there be no overlap? These are questions that each one of us must come to answer for ourselves so as to achieve some modicum of ethical integrity.

Final Exercise

Consider the following descriptions of people. What constellations of principles do they likely possess? How are they prioritized? Under which circumstances?

A. A politically active, feminist bank teller who majored in philosophy as an undergraduate.

B. A good father and family man, bulwark of his community who secretly hires out as an assassin.

C. An elderly woman, independently but not very wealthy, who spends her days doing volunteer work in the local hospital and has fifty cats.

D. A man, forty-five years old, mayor of his town, married with children having an affair with his secretary.

E. An ex-Marine, who while in Vietnam killed twenty men, who now teaches elementary school and helps out in a homeless shelter on weekends.


[1]   See Theodore Schick, Jr. "Is Morality a Matter of Taste?" at

[2] For a wealth of instruction, information and example on ethics, visit Lawrence M. Hinman's website at the University of San Diego at

[3] See, for example, Richard B. Miller Casuistry and Modern Ethics. A poetics of practical reasoning . (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1996).

[4] Developed from " Teaching Case Analysis to Achieve Philosophical Consensus " at

[5] See more examples for case analysis examples at EGR/PhiloCat.html