Ethics is a very common topic nowadays, which encompasses knowing what is moral and immoral. There are no doubts that ethics are very essential in all aspects of life. Throughout the history of human kind, there are numerous theories and thoughts that have been developed to explain ethics and morality in the human society. It may seem a simple topic, but controversy, suppositions and theories have exploded explaining the notion of what is good and bad. A major debate that has been ongoing is whether ethics are natural and inborn traits, or something which people acquire and learn in life.
Throughout a person life, many ethical dilemmas will be encountered. In order to solve these dilemmas, ethical judgment is crucial. Some people have argued that natural emotions, conscience and instinct are what determine the action and inactions of individuals (Bredeson & Goree 2012).
On the other hand, considering that a person belongs to a given society or culture, other people may argue that the person adopts the code of conduct acceptable in that particular society. The moral judgment is guided by the principles the individual has learned through social interactions within a society. Culture may differ, and ethics and moral judgment differ depending on situations. If ethics were inherent and natural, one may not help to wonder why some people find it difficult to differentiate between good and evil, moral and immoral (Thomas, 1997). This essay gives some of the arguments on why ethics are learned behaviors and not natural.
It makes no sense to say that people are born with the capability of differentiating between right and wrong. Assuming that babies knew what is ethical and what is not, they would amass guilt from the many things they do when young. Again, if they were born with ethics, people would not just overlook the things they do because it would be assumed that they had malicious intentions. Since they are born in a society with specific ethical principles, ethics are, as a result, considered to be qualities and knowledge they gain as they become familiar with what people within the immediate society like or do not like (Thomas, 1997).
According to Mayr (1988), a human newborn is born, doubtlessly, with a definite innate ability to acquire moral values, but not with any specific values. What happens is that an individual is born into a certain society which itself has a set of ethical values which are supposed to be adopted by anyone who wishes to fit into it. The learning process occurs as a result of the many social encounters which the individual experiences in life (Thomas, 1997).
People will engage in such encounters either directly, by witnessing other people participating in them or by simple observation or through other social transactions. This argument presents a very strong basis for believing that ethical values are not inborn, but are instead learned all through an individual’s lifecycle, which covers infancy through childhood, adolescence and maturity. Ethical values are instilled in a number of social settings and institutions such as family, churches, schools, colleges, universities, and places of work, as well as in the communal sphere as people engage in neighborhood activities, political activities and community building activities.
At a young age, children’s learning abilities depend a lot, however, not entirely, on the support of compassionate and capable mentors. Mentors, in this case, include parent (mother and father), guardians, church personnel, teachers, and others people in the child’s life. As life progresses, children learn further and adopt their own ethical values (Thomas, 1997).
Generally, ethics are values of a society in which one exists. Socialization is crucial in development of ethical values as people interact socially hence ending up internalizing the customs, languages, beliefs, as well as values relevant to the society (Grcić, 2000). The parents and family settings are associated with primary socialization while schools and churches are associated with secondary socialization. Tertiary socialization is believed to occur at the maturity stage when people join different professions. The most important of these stages in the primary socialization stage because it lays the foundation for subsequent stages (Bredeson & Goree, 2012).
A major modeler of ethical beliefs and values is authority. A lot of actions are deemed right because important people or authorities have said so. Authoritarian societies adopt ethical values to avoiding punishments or consequences of unethical actions. The most important in this case is religious authority. Believing in the existence of God plays a very crucial role in shaping the ethical system of the society and in an individual. If the Bible requires people not to kill, or commit adultery, believers will most certainly believe that the forbidden actions are unethical. Another factor having a strong influence on ethical development is political authority.
For instances, in history, monarchs have had a very strong control over ethics. Today, statutory laws have been instituted to dictate what is right and wrong. If the law forbids a certain action, the society will have a universal conception that the action is unethical (Bredeson & Goree, 2012).
Studies throughout history have provided strong evidence showing the process through which individuals acquire ethical and moral values. Many have showed development of ethical values as a continuous process through which an individual accumulates and refines his or her selected ideals and values. Kant, the most popular thinker and icon in the field of ethics, argues that development of human judgmental capabilities is a learning process in which the values are transmitted, not biologically, but educationally. Also, the values are acquired through the cultural and social institutions (Kleingeld, 1999). Kohlberg suggested a series of stages which individuals undergo as they develop morally. The stages include the pre-conventional (for the small child), the conventional level (for the socialized child), and the post-conventional level (for the grow-ups).
At the pre-conventional level, the small child’s, conduct is determined by the anticipation of enjoyment or pain. The child defines ethical actions based on what a figure with a degree of authority (mainly parents) say is ethical or based on the outcomes, either reward or punishment. For example, if a four-year old is asked why he believes stealing is wrong, most likely he will say it is because their parents say so or he will be punished (Kleingeld, 1999).
Some people remain in this level beyond childhood where they tend to define ethics based on authoritative power. At the second level, conventional level, the well-socialized older kid’s conduct seeks to conform and remain loyal to norms of family, friends, nations, and society to which they belong. Most adolescents are in this level where they have internalized the customs of their society. Adolescents determine ethical actions depending on what they have learned in their families, from friends and what their society believes. As individuals continue to grow ethically, they end up in the last level, the post-conventional level, in which their conduct as grown-ups is guided by behavioral values approved or acknowledged as legitimate autonomously (Velasquez, Andre, Shanks, & Meyer, 1987).
While it has been argued that ethics are acquired throughout the socialization process, some people have tried to demonstrate that ethics are natural. There is no doubt that deciding between right and wrong and ethical judgments are influenced by something innate in human beings. This belief is more common among naturalists who believe that natural feelings and emotions, conscience and the sense of being human play a crucial role in deciding what to do or not, and what is right or wrong. As a human being, one will find him/herself basing ethical decisions on general emotions and natural instinct.
Sometimes the societal ethical values are overlooked as emotions of pleasure, happiness, generosity and sympathy/compassion prevail (Ward, n.d.). According to Bredeson and Goree (2012), intuition is a somewhat natural thing which makes people judge instinctively that something is either right or wrong. Some principles are built into ones conscience where a voice from within a person will be heard in the event of ethical dilemmas. It is not on rare occasions when people find themselves having to rely on in tuition in making ethical judgments (Bredeson & Goree, 2012). Although ethics defines what a society agrees with, it is obvious that some issues will raise conflicts.
For instance, consider being born in a society which condones slavery. By thinking about this situation, being “human” is at all time significant. Something intrinsic maintains that torturing and paining people is wrong, just because one is human. Even when the entire society believes that slavery is right and ethical, something inside the person will always view it as wrong (Bredeson & Goree, 2012).
Ethics are becoming more essential as the human society becomes more complex and integrated. Based on the above discussion, it is evident that ethics is more of learned behavior than natural. Ethics relates to the right or wrong in a society. Once an individual is born into a certain society, he or she has to learn, through a gradual process, what that particular society like or does not like. An infant is born with certain intrinsic ability to comprehend and acquire ethical values, but not with particular values. Numerous factors shape ethical values in an individual including the social institutions such as churches and schools among others. Authoritative power of parents, religion and political leaders also shape persons ethical orientations.
The learning process is a gradual where ethical judgment at different levels of ethical development is determined by different factors. However, the counterargument certainly shows that the ethics is not without natural element. Some natural instincts, emotions, and the sense of being a human being are very significant in making of ethical decisions. Sometimes, people follow their conscience, the internal voice, to find their way out of ethical dilemmas. Therefore, although it can be concluded that ethics are learned, the natural instincts and emotions can not be ignored.
Bredeson, D., & Goree, K. (2012). Ethics in the workplace. Mason, OH: South-Western/Cengage Learning.
Grcić, J. (2000). Ethics and political theory. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.
Kleingeld, P. (1999). Kant, History, and the Idea of Moral Development. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 16(1), 59-80.
Mayr, E. (1988). Toward a new philosophy of biology: Observations of an evolutionist. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Thomas, R. M. (1997). Moral development theories–secular and religious: A comparative study. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
Velasquez, M., Andre, C., Shanks, T., S.J., & Meyer, M. J. (1987). Can Ethics Be Taught?. Web.
Ward, S. J. (n.d.). Ethics in a Nutshell: Types of Theories. Web.