As the pace of change in the world accelerates, so does the shift in traditionally held notions on various matters. Ethics of right vs. wrong is among the issues which have been affected by changes seen in society today. During the better part of the Twentieth Century, the ethics of right vs. wrong were straightforward – acts of virtue qualified to be ethically justifiable while vices were considered to be ethically questionable. Today, however, ethical decision-making calls for an exhaustive process of critical thinking before determining the ethical nature of an action. An act that may be right, therefore, might have adverse outcomes, while an act that might seem wrong at the offset might have long-term benefits. As such, right might be unethical, while wrong might be ethical. The purpose of this discussion is to dissect the ethics of right vs. wrong. The arguments presented will rely on the proposition that – while individuals should always strive to do the right thing, it is even more important that decision-making is based upon a critical analysis of all possible outcomes before determining the course of action to take.
In a conventional sense, ethics underpin the moral concepts that govern a person’s behavior. Ethics are associated with such concepts as conscience, responsibility, fairness, justice, honesty, and integrity, among others. Ethics are meant to ensure that uprightness is upheld and that actions that contravene decency in society are suppressed. Ideally, ethics are meant to help individuals in positions of power to place the interests of the people they serve at the forefront. Similarly, corporations that act ethically are expected to place the interests of communities at the forefront, so that the motive to be profitable does not undermine the welfare of people or the natural environment. In the public context, institutions of justice are supposed to be guided by the principles of honesty, fairness, and integrity to ensure that justice is issued equitably (Shafer-Landau, 2012). Ideally, the justice system is supposed to ensure any persons and business entities that violate the rights of others are punished accordingly and that their victims are rewarded accordingly. In each of the abovementioned scenarios, the ethics of doing the right thing are justifiable. However, as will be seen later in this discussion, people in positions of power hardly ever take the right course of action towards protecting the welfare of those outside the realm of power.
In the modern-day, ethics should be governed by a rigorous thought process towards determining the eventual outcome of a particular decision. This is because doing the right thing might have negative implications in the long term. For instance, while honesty is ethically justifiable, issuing honest information to a party who will use the information for ethically questionable purposes is unjustifiable. This is in line with the observations by Girish Punj (2017) which suggest that consumers should not act as informants to corporations that end up selling their personal information to third parties. In his study, Punj (2017) observes that 95% of consumers do not read companies’ terms of service, which are intentionally meant to be hard for consumers to understand. The idea is to mislead consumers into acknowledging the terms of service, which are occasionally one-sided, protecting the welfare of the company but not the consumer (Wilkens, 2011). Having attained consumers’ permission to access their data, corporations use this information to tailor marketing campaigns to the interests of the consumers, but there is evidence of corporations misusing the information and exploiting consumers (Punj, 2017). In light of the need to protect their personal information, it is justifiable for consumers to be dishonest about their personal information.
Yet another factor that shows the importance of engaging thorough thought processes before coming up with a decision is on right vs. wrong is the concept of justice vs. mercy. Mercy is important in upholding tolerance in society and is, in turn, ethical. Similarly, justice is relevant in upholding order and integrity and is also ethical. However, both concepts can hardly coexist in a society that seeks to prevent crime and repeat offenses. When an elderly person is convicted of a crime they committed at a younger age, it is not uncommon for people to plead for mercy on the offender, seeing that jail time would only subject the offender to suffering, rather than rehabilitating him/her (Shafer-Landau, 2012). At the same time, victims of the crime will rightly feel that failure to issue the rightful sentence will be contradictory to justice. In this case, the jury ought to weigh between the two virtues before determining the right decision. As is often the case, the jury will likely issue a harsh sentence against the elderly offender in the effort to set an example to the public and to show that no one is exempt from justice (Shafer-Landau, 2012). In this case, justice outdoes mercy despite that both concepts are virtuous.
The only way to determine whether the right is ethical and wrong is unethical is by contextualizing the issues in question and triggering a rigorous thought process. Even then, it might still be difficult to choose between two conflicting ethical or unethical decisions. Thus, it is recommended that one relies on two core psychological processes, namely contemplation, and conversation (Gunia et al., 2012). Various developmental psychologists have identified contemplation as the foundation of moral reasoning and reasoning as the basis of moral decision-making (Gunia et al., 2012). Indeed, it is the failure to engage contemplation that occasionally undermines ethicality. Conversation, on the other hand, is necessary as it accounts for social context (Gustafson, 2013). Engaging conversation in the decision-making process makes it possible to consider utilitarian ethics, which in turn, helps decision-makers to choose the actions that facilitate the attainment of the greater good for the benefit of all.
This discussion highlights that determining right and wrong is not always possible by determining what is ethical and unethical. Ideally, ethics should uphold morality in society but this is hardly the case. It is not uncommon for individuals in positions of power to undermine the interests of those in inferior positions, in which case it is justifiable for the powerless to protect their interests. At the same time, choosing one ethical decision might undermine another more significant factor, such as the case with the debate on justice vs. mercy. In light of these factors, decision-makers must engage a critical thought process before determining the course of action to take. It is recommendable to engage in contemplation and conversation to facilitate moral reasoning and to account for social context. This way, it becomes easier to make sound decisions without the risk of overlooking important considerations.
Gunia, B. C., Wang, L., Huang, L. I., Wang, J., & Murnighan, J. K. (2012). Contemplation and conversation: Subtle influences on moral decision making. Academy of Management Journal, 55(1), 13-33.
Gustafson, A. (2013). In defense of a utilitarian business ethic. Business and Society Review, 118(3), 325-360.
Punj, G. (2017). Consumer intentions to falsify personal information online: unethical or justifiable?. Journal of Marketing Management, 33(15-16), 1402-1412.
Shafer-Landau, R. (Ed.). (2012). Ethical theory: an anthology (Vol. 13). John Wiley & Sons.
Wilkens, S. (2011). Beyond bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong. London: Intervarsity Press.