Finding a Personal Fit in Law, Morality, and Ethics

By Shain, Roscoe B.; Newport, Stephanie | Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Finding a Personal Fit in Law, Morality, and Ethics


Shain, Roscoe B., Newport, Stephanie, Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues


From Socrates' admonition to "Know Thyself' to the observation of Warren Bennis "...letting the self emerge is the essential task of leaders(Cashman, 2008, p. 115), the idea has stood the test of time: individuals who wish to be effective leaders should look within to discover their strengths and weaknesses. Prescriptions as to how to accomplish such a daunting task abound in discourses from religion to philosophy to metaphysics to law. There is little agreement among definitions of either ethics or morality, so charting a path through this maelstrom of advice is part of what makes self-discovery so difficult (Fyfe, 2005). Some sources list five "approaches": utilitarianism, justice, virtue, rights, and common good (Velasquez, et al 1999) , some list two (Brown, 1989) while others classify these concepts as "guidelines" (www.amstat.org) or "principles" (www.apa.org/ethics/code.html). The intent of this paper is to offer a simple way of identifying one's personal, moral approach to ethical situations and the means one prefers to use to direct one's selection of "the right thing" to do.

Maxwell (2003) makes a solid case for ethics as the embodiment of the normative prescription for human behavior and morals as the descriptive counterpoint to ethics. Casting ethics as the way humans should act and morals as the way they actually do act establishes them as mutually exclusive concepts. It is postulated that individuals have a dominant initial interpretation of ethical situations. The way they actually view ethical issues changes little over time, and can be categorized in one of three ways: aretaic, déontologie, or teleologic.

People who demonstrate the aretaic approach to ethics will focus on the individual person involved in the ethical situation. The term "aretaic" is derived from Aristotelian word "arête" or "virtue" (Ess) Aretaic, or virtue, ethics is found in most religious interpretations of ethics which primarily encourage building strong character and exhort people to engage in good behavior. When considering an ethical dilemma, an aretaic questioner would focus on what a good or bad person would do to resolve the problem.

The déontologie approach to ethics is found predominant in law. The Greek word "deon" means "duty" (Alexander & Moore, 2012), indicating that people have an obligation to behave ethically. These obligations are often, but not always, codified in law. Indeed, the deontologist will react equally negatively to both a blatant legal violation and a simple broken promise. For example, the American Bar Association, in the early 1980s suggested a code of ethical standard to serve as a model for States to adopt, as they wished (American Bar Association, 2013). Their webpage dedicated to professional responsibility is rife with resources to assist the legal community in identifying ethical solutions to just about any issue they are likely to encounter. In concert with the stated purpose of the Center for Professional Responsibility, members of the legal profession have promised to do their duty: to respect and represent the best interests of their clients. With over 96% of federal and state convictions resulting from plea bargains (Davies, 2013), giving clients complete and accurate information regarding the plea specifics is imperative.

Teleological adherents base their moral choices on the consequences of the behavior or decision. Because decisions made by medical personnel can bear life or death consequences, this approach is often found in medical treatises. Teleological arguments are also the most persuasive of the three moral positions. The first two moral approaches could possibly be challenged successfully. Not everyone thinks drinking alcoholic drinks is wrong; the legal blood alcohol level and the legal age for such behavior can be debated. What cannot be denied are the results of drinking alcoholic beverages, from occasional verbal malfunctions to causing a highway accident. …

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