At the end of this lesson you should understand
  1. what ethics is
  2. when ethical questions can arise and
  3. how to recognize ethical questions embedded in ordinary experience.


Ethics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with right behavior.
Ethics is different from the study of cultural mores because in ethics we examine the mores of our culture to judge if they are ethically right.

Ethics is a normative study and ethics uses value judgements.

Here is a more philosophical way of talking about ethics:
Ethical questions arise when we are making decisions in contingent situations.

Of course we need to understand the meaning of contingency if this statement is to make any sense. It is worth learning abut contingency since it is a term that is appropriate to many situations. See if you can follow this explanation.

There are three related philosophical concepts:

  1. possiblility - anything that can happen Example: Is is possible to transpant kidneys, to revive some hearts that have stopped beating, to amputate a gangerous foot.
  2. necessity - anything that can not, NOT happen; anthing that must happen. It is necessary that a person's blood get purified naturally or artificially if the person is to live. Someone who has intercranial pressure exceeding that of their systolic blood pressure will necessarily suffer brain damage.
  3. contingency - anything that is possible but is not necessary. Actually tranplanting a kidney, reviving a stopped heart or amputating a gangerous foot is contingent. It can be done or not done. It is possible but it is not necessary. The decision to transplant or not transplant is an decision about a contingency. The decision is a medical decision but it is also an ethical decision because transplantation is a contingent matter.

    Reflect: When you decided to read this lesson, was that a contingent decision? [Was reading the lesson something that you could do or not do?] If it were a contingent decision, there would be some ethical aspects to that decision. You may or may not have been aware of them but they were there nevertheless. Example. You may have decided to do the lesson out of a sense of duty or because you feared the consequences of NOT doing it. You may have decided to do the lesson now, rather than earlier, because earlier you had other more important duties to meet. Duties, consequences and values are the substance of ethical reflection - as Lesson 5 will demonstrate.

Let us go a little further in our examination of contingency since it is so important in ethics. Ethics only arises in situations of contingency. All ethical questions are in the realm of the contingent.

Special note: Sometimes after experiencing a situation that is NOT contingent, a person may feel guilt. This is psycholgical guilt and should not be confused with moral guilt. Example. A parent hears a smoke alarm and immediately rushes to rescue his or her child from the child's bedroom. But when s/he gets there, the child's room is engulfed in flames already and the parent can not enter. Afterwards, that parent may feel guilt but that guilt is a psychological reaction. It is not moral/ethical guilt. The parent is not guilty of moral wrong since rescue was not possible The situation was not contigent. It was not an ethical situation.

Developing ethical awareness

Developing ethical awareness is something that every student of ethics needs to practice. It is often difficult for professinals to recognize ethical aspects of ordinary decisions because of habit. If one works in a facility and "everyone does it this way " or "this is the way we have always done those things" it can be difficult to question whether that way of doing things is right. It can be difficult to even think of questioning whether it should or should not be done at all.

But, history demonstrates that it is important to develop ethical awareness. There are many times in the past when persons in the medical profession did things that most of us now think were wrong. Often these things were done without any question. Doctors or nurses just went along with the mores of the society. It was "just the way it was done in society" and because they had not studied medical ethics or developed their ethical awareness, they never questioned whether their actions were right or wrong.

The whole purpose of studying medical ethics is to become very aware of ethical questions. If we are not aware, if we do not question, who will? No one else will ---- and history may find us "morally inept".

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