What does it mean to be an ethically responsible person and is that something you strive for?
If we break this question down, there are 2 main components. The first, what does it mean to be “ethically responsible” and the second, should we strive to be so. While it makes sense logically to answer the former before the latter, it is easier in this case to answer the latter first. The question is essentially “are we responsible for behaving ethically,” which most people would answer with a yes. After all, “with great power comes great responsibility,” or so to speak and I would argue that the very foundation of society is the ethical behavior of individuals, as it is only through following common principles can we build a network of people. While there are dissidents who would argue against ethical responsibility, I believe that these people are less against the idea itself, and more against components of what being ethically responsible would entail, which brings me to the former part of the question.
This question is much harder to answer. To break it down, we have a“responsibility” to behave “ethically”, but this does nothing to define what “responsibility” or “ethically” means. Beginning with “ethically”, there are several frameworks for deciding what is ethical. As a brief summary, there are three categories: consequentialist, concerned with consequences of actions, Non-consequentialist, concerned more generally with a person’s intent, and agent-centered, concerned more with the ethical nature of a person than of specific decisions. As an example of a consequentialist framework, killing is generally considered a bad thing to do (“thou shalt not kill”) but what if you killed a terrorist before he could cause damage? Would that be unethical? If the consequence is that the terrorist is dead, but 50 lives are saved, can we consider that an unethical action? This theory is appealing, because it gives us flexibility to justify different actions and intents in different situations, but it is not foolproof. Consider this: a person intends to do some good for the community, but in the process makes a mistake and instead causes some sort of damage. The negative consequence would make this “unethical,” but can we call the person unethical if he had good intent?
This brings us to the second broad framework, which deals more with intent rather than the consequence or action itself. Under these theories, an action is ethical if it ticks off one of several boxes (depending on the theory) such as whether it follows a universal moral law, protects human rights, or follows a “divine command.” These might provide some comfort to the unfortunate person who just wanted to help his community, but these theories have their own issues. The first is that these theories supposed that there are some universal laws we should follow, but it is not like these laws are written in the stars somewhere. These “laws” must be debated and argued for/against, and thus could change over time, which begs the question of should what is considered “ethical” be able to change over time? Even the “divine command” theory is fallible to this issue, as the biblical law is open to interpretation, and it is entirely possible (and even very likely given the age of biblical texts and commands) that humans will misinterpret a “divine command.”
The last set of frameworks is fairly different from the other two, as it passes over the question of whether an action is ethical or not, and instead focuses the person who commits the action. A person then may make “unethical actions” but the person may still be of good character if they have attained certain “virtues.”
Each framework individually has its flaws, and so perhaps the best way to define what is ethical is to combine them in some way. The consequentialist approach can be thought of a “social” perspective of ethicality, as it is more easily judged by society as society can measure the impacts of an action and judge the action accordingly. The non-consequentialist perspective is more individual, as only a person truly knows his or her own intent. From the outside, an action may be deemed ethical depending on the consequences, but only the person will know whether the consequence was intended for or not, and thus society has no real say to an action’s ethicality. Perhaps judging an action should take both factors into account on a scale, where the societal judgement and individual are given a weight, and if the result is net positive, the action is ethical. The weights then would depend on a person’s individual beliefs. I have no clue what approach is correct, and likely no one will, but at the very least we can apply these frameworks in understanding our actions.
Now, I will quickly touch on responsibility. In class, we discussed how we may have a responsibility to use what we have to better society. It seems to be generally accepted that this is true, and that the rule that the more power you have, the more responsibility you have to do good is true as well. But does either truly hold? Do we truly have a responsibility as individuals to behave ethically?
Consider the case of superman who has massive power. With so much power, does he have a “responsibility” to the world? If the amount of responsibility scales with power, is superman essentially a slave of society? How does individual happiness factor in? There is a danger to in responsibility, as it may encourage people to behave in ways they do not believe in. For example, supposed someone feels responsible to help out at a nursing home. They, however, may not be helping out because they want to, but because they feel a responsibility to. Does that make the action ethical? Does the inclusion of responsibility diminish intent? Or perhaps intent doesn’t matter anyways. At the end of the day, it is up to the individual to determine their own ethical framework and shoulder their own version of responsibility.