The Foundations of Ethical Thinking
The meaning of ‘ethics’ and the definition of moral standards have changed throughout history. In early Greece,ethos meant character or customs. In early Latin, mos – from which we got our word morals – also referred to customs. The discussion of ethics in Aristotelian Athens referred not just to ‘good versus bad’, but also to such character traits as courage, justice or temperance. During the Middle Ages, much of ethics was replaced by religious or church-issued dogma and rules. Moral matters were no longer ‘customs’ or character qualifications but became matters of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Later still, ethics emerged as an intellectual pursuit, a discipline of philosophy. It is useful to quickly review the conclusions of theorists dealing with leading ethical theories as they attempt to define and defend a series of principles that we can use to reflect upon specific ethical actions and choose what we ought to do or what kind of persons we ought to become:
1. Results-Based Ethics
Sometimes called ‘consequentialism’, this theory states that moral goodness or badness is determined by the results or consequences of an act or rule. According to this theory, lying about our coaching experience is morally wrong because of the damage this lie will cause to the coach, the coachee and to an entire profession that depends on honest relationships. One model derived from this theory is called ‘utilitarianism’. It was originated by Jeremy Bentham (An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789) who argued that the morally correct rule was the one that provided the greatest good to the greatest number of people.
2. Standards-Based Ethics
Also called the ‘deontological’ theory, standards-based ethics says we determine if an act or rule is morally right or wrong by investigating whether or not it meets a moral standard. One famous contributor to this theory was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He developed a ‘universal test’ to see if a rule could be a universal standard (Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals, 1785). For example, violating client confidentiality is morally wrong because you cannot make it a universal law that everyone can knowingly violate client confidentiality.
3. Ethical Intuitionism
Ethical intuitionism was the dominant moral theory in Britain for much of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, yet it is part of an older family of theories that ascribe to humanity a common moral faculty. Origins include the moral sentiment theories of David Hume (Of the Original Contract, 1758). Under this view an act or rule is determined to be right or wrong by appeal to the common intuition of a person. This intuition is sometimes referred to as your ‘conscience’. Any coach with a normal conscience will know that it is wrong to promise a client or a coachee something you know you can’t deliver.
4. Virtue Ethics
According to this ethical theory, ethics should develop character traits or virtues in a person so he or she will do what is morally right because he or she is a virtuous person. Aristotle was a famous exponent of this view and felt that virtue ethics was the way to attain true happiness.