Approaches to ethics

by Stephen J. Ward

This article provides an overview of ethics in general, and journalism ethics. It identifies the major approaches to ethics and models of ethical reasoning, before explaining the nature of journalism ethics. The aim is to orient readers who are not familiar with the study of ethics.

Nature of ethics

The word “ethics” is connected intrinsically with questions of correct conduct within society. Etymologically, “ethics” comes from the Greek “ethos” meaning “character,” which indicates a concern for virtuous people, reliable character and proper conduct. “Morality” is derived from “mores” or custom — the rules of conduct of a group or society. An initial definition of ethics, then, is the analysis, evaluation, and promotion of correct conduct and/or good character, according to the best available standards.

Ethics asks what we should do in some circumstance, or what we should do as participants in some form of activity or profession. Ethics is not limited to the acts of a single person. Ethics is also interested in the correct practices of governments, corporations, professionals and many other groups. To these questions, ethics seeks a reasoned, principled, position. An appeal to existing practice or the command of a powerful leader is not sufficient. To answer such questions in a consistent, reasoned manner may take us far a-field. Some ethical questions will require reflection on our basic values and the purpose of human society.

Ethics is best conceived of as something we “do,” a form of on-going inquiry into practical problems. Ethics is the difficult practical task of applying norms and standards to ever new and changing circumstances. Ethical questions arise most typically in cases where there is genuine puzzlement about what should be done in various types of situations. There is usually some practical importance or urgency to such questions. Is it ethical for journalists to reveal their sources to the courts, despite their promises of confidentiality? Is it ethical of journalists to invade the privacy of politicians to investigate allegations of misbehaviour? One inquires ethically because one is puzzled about how existing principles might apply in a concrete situation. Ethical inquiry exists because tensions inevitably arise over what constitutes correct conduct or fair practice wherever humans live and work together. Disagreements arise not only over specific practices, but also over the interpretation of principles.

Ethics is sometimes identified with an inflexible set of rules and self-righteous moralizing. Rules say an action is either right or wrong. This over-simplifies ethics. Ethical thinking requires the guidance of principles but it should not be shackled to them. Instead, we should evaluate principles according to whether they are useful in dealing with ethical concerns. Principles, and their interpretations* change over time. No principle can anticipate all possible situations, and principles may conflict. Ethics should focus on how people interpret, apply, balance and modify their principles in light of new facts, new technology, new social attitudes and changing economic and political conditions.

Ethics is not static. Ethics consists of dynamic frameworks of principles and values. Our ethical values reflect our deepest convictions and attachments. They define who we are, and give us an ethical “identity.” Ethics is the process of inventing new and better ethical responses to problems and conflicts. This process is driven not only by social change but also by our “ethical imagination” which continually pushes on existing boundaries. For example, relatively recent ‘imaginative’ proposals include the advocacy of same-sex marriage and the idea that animals have “rights.”

Range of ethics

Ethical inquiry covers a wide range of possible subjects, such as:

• Personal ethics: e.g. questions about one’s basic values and plan of life
• Professional ethics: principles and practices of major professions
• Social and political ethics: e.g., issues of social justice, political rights
• Ethics of sexual and gender relations
• Research ethics in academia and the private sector
• Environmental ethics, including the ethical treatment of animals
• Global ethics: ethics of international affairs, human rights
• Communication ethics, including media, public relations and journalism

Theoretical and applied ethics

Ethical inquiry can occur on many levels of thought, according to one’s focus and interest. We can distinguish between two main types of ethical inquiry:

Theoretical ethics: The study of the main concepts and methods of ethics. Major questions at this level include the nature of ethical language, the justification of ethical judgments and the nature of ethical reasoning. Ethical philosophy, for example, is the systematic study of ethical experience and the justification of moral notions, beginning with those that historically and by current estimation are the most important.

Applied ethics: The application and evaluation of the principles and norms that guide practice in particular domains. The focus is on issues and problems specific to the field in question, through a combination of theory and practice. Major questions at this level include how certain principles apply to various practical problems, the ranking of principles, the standards of “best practice” and ethical decision-making in the field. The “theoretical-applied” distinction is not absolute. It is a matter of emphasis and interest. As practical, reasoned inquiry, ethics in any domain will include both practical and theoretical considerations.

Professional ethics is a major division of applied ethics. It is the application and evaluation of norms and practice in the various professions, such as medicine, journalism and law. Since the mid-1900s, many institutes, centres and journals have been established to study and enhance nursing ethics, business ethics, biomedical ethics, media ethics, the ethics of government and corporate governance and so on.

Types of ethics

By focusing on a major aspect:
One way to approach ethics is to focus on one of four recurring aspects of ethical situations: rights, goods, virtues and our communal relations with others. Ethical inquiry into correct conduct involves (1) questions about whether an action honours or violates anyone’s rights or duties, (2) questions about the “goods” that should be pursued, often thought of as the harmful or beneficial consequences of action, (3) the impact of action on the “virtue” of the actors — their character and integrity, and (4) the impact of action on our communal and “caring” relations with others.

Each of the four aspects provides an approach to ethics:

1. Teleological or “goods-based” ethics: Ethics is primarily about the aims or telos of actions — the “goods” to be pursued, including the impact of actions on individuals or groups. Ethics systems in this tradition include “consequential” theories that attempt to maximize valuable outcomes or “goods” and minimize harms. One form of consequentialism is utilitarianism, where valuable outcomes are defined in terms of utility.

2. “Duty” or “de-ontological” ethics: Ethics is primarily about the rights and duties of agents, which take precedence over individual feelings or inclinations, the wishes of the majority, or utilitarian calculations about what would make most people happy. Rights trump the pursuit of goods. There are fundamental principles and duties that restrain self-interest. Ethical systems in this tradition include the philosophy of Kant and John Rawls.

3. Virtue ethics: Ethics is primarily about developing a virtuous person and citizen. Ethics is not primarily about formulating an unchanging set of principles. It is about developing ethical character and the practical wisdom to choose the right thing to do in complex situations. Here, ethical education and development plays a central role. Ethical thought in this tradition derives from the virtue ethics of Plato and Aristotle, with its stress on achieving the good life, through virtuous dispositions. Often, such thinking is “perfectionist” by stressing that ethics should be guided by a notion of human perfection or the ideal society.

4. Ethics of care and community: Ethical deliberation should prioritize the fostering of responsible, caring relationships among people – relationships that honour their dignity, humanity and “connectedness.” This approach is embodied in a “communitarian ethics” that views values as embedded in community and shared practices. According to this approach, too much of Western ethics has emphasized the rights of atomized individuals while downplaying their duties. A primary ethical imperative, then, is to build communities that enhance compassionate and fulfilling relationships among its members. In journalism, this “ethics of care” is expressed in several ways, including the principle to “minimize” unnecessary harm to vulnerable subjects of news stories. Advocates of an ethics of care tend to prefer the “social responsibility theory” of the press over the liberal theory of the press. See theories of the press below.

Please note : This division is too simplistic. A full theory of ethics would have to make room for all four aspects. Also, some ethical systems cut across the categories. For example, Rawls’s theory of justice stresses the priority of rights, yet he also shows how the pursuit of goods is enhanced by a just social structure. Aristotle develops an ethics of virtue, which is also a teleological theory about how to achieve the supreme good of happiness. The value of this rough categorization is that it draws attention to four aspects of ethical thinking, and that some philosophers emphasize one aspect more than others.

By focusing on the “source” of ethical authority:
Even if we agree on the approach and the basic rules, we could disagree on their justification:

• Authoritative, external, voices: Ethical rules are valid if they are the rules of a deity, inspired leader, a divine world order, tradition or ancient, holy, book. This tradition includes not only religions but also philosophical systems, such as the appeal to divine law by Thomas Aquinas and the appeal to a universal “natural law” by the Stoics and John Locke.

• Naturalism: Ethical judgments are based on natural feelings, conscience or reason within all humans — not on supernatural authority. Universal sentiments may include benevolence and sympathy, pleasure or happiness. Universal principles may be recognized by the faculty of reason. Naturalism includes the philosophical traditions of empiricism and rationalism, from Aristotle and John Locke to David Hume, Adam Smith and Kant.

• Social agreement, or contract: The rational basis of ethical and political rules (and arrangements) is a fair agreement among all interested parties. Historically, this agreement has been interpreted as an implicit, or explicit, social contract, or a hypothetical contract.

For a summary of approaches to ethics in general, go to

Ethical reasoning and decision-making

The website for the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of British Columbia provides a wide selection of links to models of ethical reasoning — how to make ethical decisions in general, and in specific professions. The website also provides links to a bibliography of books and articles on ethical reasoning.

A list of major websites providing resources on ethical reasoning

Among the links, the most useful for general reasoning strategies are:
Applied Ethics Resources on the Web
Starting Points in Applied Ethics

Or go directly to a list of reasoning guides.