“Ought” Versus “Is” Ethics

Many debates about ethical issues become bogged down in a fundamental confusion caused by two very different ways in which the term ethics is used. In most cases, ethics refers to notions of moral obligation, ideas and beliefs about what people should do — the “ought.” Often, however, the term is used simply to describe what certain people or cultures actually do — the “is.” Thus, a person using ethics in the “ought” sense might contend that “ethical politicians should be scrupulously honest in everything they say” only to be confronted with the use of ethics in the “is” sense: “The ethics of politics is tell voters what they want to hear.”

“Ought ethics” is prescriptive, for it prescribes norms of behavior based on moral principles that define what is right, good and proper. “Is ethics” is descriptive, without any suggestion of moral judgment. It is not uncommon to hear someone speak of “business ethics” or “political ethics” while attempting to describe how business executives or politicians do act without asserting anything about how they should act. Is ethics, then is simply concerned with characterizing behavior patterns of individuals or groups. This perspective is not really about ethics at all but it often masks authentic ethical obligations. Thus, people delude themselves into thinking that they are acting ethically so long as their behavior conforms to the general description of the groups they associate with. Real ethics, ought ethics, is not concerned with the way things are but the way they ought to be. There are no such thing as “business ethics” or “political ethics” — there is only ethics.

This includes convictions about what end states (such as justice and human well-being) and what character traits (such as honesty, integrity, respect and compassion) are morally and ethically right. There are four types of ethical values: personal — individual value judgments; cultural — shared values expressed in social norms of morality derived from customs, conventions, traditions, and mores; religious — concepts of morality expressed in religious doctrine; and universal — objective standards of morality applicable to all people everywhere, derived from intuition, divine inspiration, or philosophical reason.

For example, most of us place a great value on self-esteem. Often this mental state is achieved through moral conduct, but that is not always the case. Some notoriously unethical people seem to enjoy high self-esteem. More curiously, some highly moral people lack self-esteem. Whether one has self-esteem or not says nothing about ethics because this value is essentially nonethical in character. Similarly, most people have strong regard for intelligence, creativity and a sense of humor. We find these qualities instrumental in achieving personal goals and enjoy people who have them. They are nonethical values, however, since moral significance is not associated with their presence or absence. In other words, an intelligent person is no more or less likely to be moral than an unintelligent one.