Life is full of struggles. A fight between good versus evil is a common plot in movies and television shows. But this same battle can internally happen all the time. They’re called ethical issues, and we face them every day.
From the mundane to grandiose, we have a list of ethical issues to get you thinking, “What would I do?”
A Brief Explanation of What Ethics Are
At its core, ethics refers to the branch of philosophy that questions what humans ought to do in certain situations. If you see the words “ought” and “should,” you know you’re in an ethical conundrum.
There’s a part of ethics that questions the standards in which people should refrain from murder, stealing, and other forms of typically unethical behaviors.
For example, it’s typically frowned upon to commit murder, but it’s ethically right when a home intruder threatens a man’s family or when soldiers go off to war. Stealing is also considered bad, but it’s the story of Robin Hood turns that notion on its head.
As such, ethics deals with how a society or broader social group forms its own ethical standards, such as the rights afforded to each individual. These rights typically involve the freedom to avoid having pain forced upon them and the freedom to explore autonomy as much as possible.
But another branch of ethics explores the internal formation of an individual’s ethics. This means one’s responsibility for what they should and shouldn’t do — especially in opposition to society’s ethical standards.
What Ethics Isn’t
Ethics is much more than someone’s “feelings” towards right or wrong, as everyone’s feelings vary wildly. The typical serial killer has highly different regards to what is ethical than your average person. A serial killer tends to kill for their pleasure, whereas an ordinary person would recoil at the idea of killing someone.
Therefore, personal subjectivity cannot make ethics. Ethics isn’t just religious as well. While lots of religions state what their followers should and shouldn’t do, it would mean that people who grow up non-religious grow up unethical. Lots of atheists follow an ethical code and don’t commit murder, so there’s no logic in that either.
You might think ethics equates to the law as well, but that’s not necessarily the case. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into practice Public Law 503. That law essentially allowed the legal internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — even though these people had no direct connection to the attack other than their lineage.
That law is certainly not ethical, so that means that people can’t put all their trust in the law to guide their ethics. Nor can they do so with what society deems is morally ethical. We can feel a consensus on what is the most ethical thing to do, such as to help the homeless and give up seats for the elderly on public transportation.
But unless you know for sure what everyone in the country thinks about a topic, you can’t use society to inform your ethics since you don’t know the societal consensus. A good example would be abortion. People have their own beliefs about abortion, but unless you survey at least 95% of society, you’ll never know for sure what your society thinks about the topic.
You have to mitigate the ethics of your external surroundings and your internal world to navigate ethical issues. And thinking about ethical examples is the best way to find out where your ethical core stands.
What’s at the Core of Ethical Issues?
It is a mismatch between the ethical output of the action, behavior, or speech, and the doer’s value system. In short, a conflict between ethical values.
Science versus Ethics
The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Science often allows us to understand more truths about the world so that we can make more informed decisions on what is the most ethical thing to do. For much of human history, people didn’t think animals were sentient beings with emotions and mental states somewhat comparable to ours, but lab studies proved otherwise.
Therefore, science helps bring what “is” the world while ethics bring what we “ought” or “should” do. Some people may have a negative view of the ethics of science, but that’s not always the case.
Examples of Ethical Issues
The Trolley Problem
The trolly problem is perhaps one of the most well-known ethics thought experiments. While there are lots of variations of it, it usually consists of the following scenario.
You are on the side of a train track that diverts into two separate tracks, kind of like a ‘Y.’ You see a large train barreling through on the track.
On the main track — where the big train is heading — you see there are five people standing on the tracks and don’t seem to notice that the train is coming their way.
On the other track, one person is standing there, minding their own business. They don’t seem to notice the train coming their way either.
You stand in front of a lever that can divert the train. You’re too far away to alert the people on the tracks that the train is coming, so you have a choice to make: let the train run over five people or pull the lever so that it kills one person.
Which would you choose?
Lots of people say they would pull the lever and sacrifice the one person so the five may live. Their reasoning is that losing one life is better than losing five lives.
Others say they would let the train run over the five people on the track. Since they were standing on the track that the train was originally supposed to go on, you can assume that these people understood the risk of standing on a live train track. Therefore, it’s not your responsibility if they get run over.
The person standing on the non-used track might have thought they were safe as a result, so it’s the act of pulling the lever and changing the course of the train that kills them.
It seems like a pretty simple answer, then. Changing the dead train course to a live one would be what ruins a person’s perceived safety, so it might be ethically best to let the five people, who were doing something dangerous by standing on a live train track, fall victim to the risk they were assuming.
However, other variants of the Trolley problem make the answer less clear. A deranged villain tied down five people to a live train track and tied down one person to the connected dead one. Again, you are the only one who can change the course of the train.
Does it matter now that the people weren’t there by their own choice? Is sacrificing one life now better than losing five lives?
What if the five people tied down were deplorable criminals — serial killers, rapists, child predators, etc. — and the one person was a doctor who saved thousands of lives? What if only four of the five people tied down were criminals, and one was an innocent child?
There are lots of variations to the Trolley Problem, and you can add your own spin to see how you would answer the question differently. The main element up for discussion remains the same: who is worth saving, and how much is a human life worth compared to others?
The Altruistic Lie
The German movie Goodbye, Lenin, provides an interesting ethical conundrum that ethical philosophers and film critics alike have been chewing over for decades.
To boil down the plot, the movie goes like this. There’s a family living in East Berlin, or the socialist side, when the country was divided. The mother is heavily involved in the socialist movement, though the kids are more skeptical.
When the mother witnesses her son being beaten at an anti-government demonstration, she suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. She has to go to the hospital right at the time when the Berlin Wall fell, and East Berlin started becoming more capitalist. She awakens after eight months. Her heart is so weak that doctors say she’ll have a heart attack if she hears surprising or seriously upsetting news.
The woman’s son and daughter, hearing that information, try to keep the mother from seeing the societal changes East Berlin went through. They wear their old East German clothes, repackage West German food in East German jars, and even make fake news broadcasts to explain anything strange the mother noticed.
One day, though, the mother wanders outside and sees new businesses pop up. Not only that, but the statue of Lenin, the figure she’s so admired, gets helicoptered out of the town right in front of her. The son continues to explain away these changes, but someone finally tells the mother the truth. She still plays along with her son’s attempts with secret amusement.
The premise of the movie, though dramatized, follows similar scenarios in real life. People lie to each other all the time in hopes of protecting them. Parents lie and say their cat “went to live on a farm” instead of saying that the cat is dead, for example.
But does the intention of the lie overcome the negative consequence of it? The person receiving the lie gets a false view of the world, so they cannot make fully informed decisions on how to move forward after receiving the lie. Is it unethical to skew someone’s understanding of the world, and what happened if the truth would bring the deceived person pain?
It’s a tough call, and no one can know for sure. And while people lie (and will continue to lie) for multiple reasons, ethicists will still try to surmise whether the “it was for your own good” plea is as altruistic as it seems.
The Ethical Consumer
Let’s face it, many companies you buy from produce their products unethically. This means that the company uses sweatshop labor to produce their products, or exploit people in underprivileged areas to work long hours for little pay. They do so to maximize the money they make off a purchase.
In addition to human wrongs, companies exploit the environment as well. Lots of companies belch thick, black clouds of carbon dioxide into the air or dump their sludge-like waste products into nearby rivers. Logging and agricultural interests cut down the Amazon Rainforest — one of the most complex ecosystems in the world — just to maximize their profits.
If you buy products from a company that doesn’t use ethical methods to produce their goods, then your money supports such unethical practices. That’s why lots of consumers nowadays are realizing the power of their money and using it to support companies that leave a better impact on the environment.
Go to any grocery store or an online store, and you’ll see companies touting that their products do an act of good in return. Toms’ shoes, for example, have a “one for one” model, where for every shoe you buy, the company gives an extra pair of shoes to a person who needs it.
Toms also supposedly produces shoes where they are given so the company can help support the local economy. In addition to giving shoes, the company gives vision health care and clean water to people and areas that need it.
While Toms’ is a company that certainly shows how ethical consumerism can lead to tangible good in the world, there are still critics that say that there is no real ethical consumption under capitalism.
One of the biggest voices comes from Slavoj Zizek (SLAH-Voy Zhee-zhek), a cultural philosopher and professor at the University of London. He says that when you buy from a company such as Toms, you’re masking your discomfort from succeeding in a capitalist society. Why do you have the money to buy shoes when there are others too poor to buy shoes?
As a result, Zizek says that lots of people gravitate towards ethical consumerism as a way to absolve their guilt from an inherently exploitative system. Capitalism can’t work without exploitation since a business owner’s profits come from the fact they’re devaluing something, whether it’s the worker’s wages or environmental impact of their product.
So to Zizek, the reason lots of people in developed countries live comfortably versus those in other, less-developed countries is because of the former capitalism that occurred there. That’s at least the case in the United States. So now, as people try to find the best ways to spend their dollar, they’re doing so in a way that diminishes the most guilt while still getting what they want.
So to quote Zizek, “My point is the very interesting short circuit where the act of egotist consumption already includes the price of its opposite.”
When you buy a product that claims to produce a product ethically, you’re still buying something that needed exploitation to some degree. Otherwise, you couldn’t have bought that product. But because someone got a pair of shoes, you feel validated that you’re a good person as a result.
There’s still a lot of debate as to how one should maneuver a capitalist society. Other people say that capitalism is the best economic structure ever invented, so you should spend your dollar how you’d like. Since there’s so much discourse around it, you should use your values to guide your financial behavior.
What to Eat
A subsection of ethical consumerism is the question of what you should literally consume. Should you be a meat eater and support the livestock industry or go vegetarian to save an animal’s life? Or what about going vegan for a better environmental impact?
Go to any cooking section of a bookstore, and you’ll see that there are thousands of diet books out there. Among the top diet books are the ones that question whether we should be animal products or not.
Lots of vegans claim people should go vegan to reduce the suffering of animals. In traditional livestock practices, where the most amount of animals are raised in a space as possible, animals often get sick and fail to get help.
Some animals are crammed into small cages and can’t move around a lot, or they die for whatever reason, and their corpses stay around other animals for days. There are also stories of farmworkers abusing animals.
Of course, all animals for consumption must enter the slaughterhouse, where just the act of killing an animal is enough to make a person’s stomach turn.
Going vegetarian might be a solution if you don’t like the idea of eating dead animal flesh, but others argue that there is still animal suffering as a result. On dairy and egg farms, male calves and chicks are killed to make more room for females, so there’s still animal death as a result of the animal products you eat.
That’s why people forgo consuming animal products altogether and focus on a plant-based diet. It takes out animal suffering and tends to be healthier as well since people have to eat more fruits and veggies.
However, non-vegans argue that soy and bean production still causes environmental damage, which in turn, harms animals. Traditional farming practices require a lot of fertilizers to grow lots of food, which in turn can run off into nearby streams and rivers. When that happens, eutrophication occurs, and it can kill that whole aquatic ecosystem.
That’s not even factoring in the human harm agriculture causes. Farmworkers are exploited often so people can have their food, so it’s hard to eat anything without causing some kind of harm.
Unless you think starving to death is the most ethical thing to do, you have to eat. So how you go about eating is once again based on your morals. You might think it’s fine to eat beef, chicken, or pork since modern slaughterhouses kill animals in ways causing the least amount of pain.
It’s your body, so it’s your choice, right? You can put into it whatever you like, which leads us to another hotly debated topic.
The Right to Abortion
When should rights attach to a life? At conception, when a clump of cells forms a heartbeat, when a fetus forms a brain, or when a baby exits the mother’s body?
People still don’t have an answer, and lots of states in the U.S. still talk about when it’s ethically okay to terminate a pregnancy. The pro-choice side says it should be okay to do so early on in the pregnancy since a person should have the right to their body’s reproductive functioning.
Most abortions don’t technically happen by choice, though, since circumstantial factors heavily into whether or not a woman wants to carry her pregnancy into full term. But the pro-choice side says that it should be the woman’s option, not the government’s, whether she can terminate a pregnancy before the baby can live outside of the womb.
The pro-life says all fetal life is sacred and that the most ethical option should be to carry a pregnancy to full term. They often think life happens at conception, when an egg is fertilized, so a pregnancy terminated at any stage is murder, and those who are pro-choice thus support infanticide.
However, people respond and say there’s already legally a difference between a clump of cells at four weeks into a pregnancy and a baby that’s nine months old. That’s why people who take the Plan-B pill aren’t considered murders under the law.
Furthermore, a pro-choice retort would be that if pro-life people cared about the lives of unborn children, they would care about the lives of those children after they’ve been born.
If a child is born into an abusive home that lacks advantages for a better future or is immediately sent to live in the foster care system, is that life better than a mother terminating one pregnancy when she’s young and waiting till she’s older and more financially stable? Should it matter the life one is born into?
Since conversations about abortion are still as heated as ever, we might never reach a conclusion. But people can still make their own choices based on their ethical principles.
In addition to talking about how to start life, people question whether it’s ethical to end a life as well to minimize suffering.
Also called aid-in-dying, physician-assisted suicide aims to help minimize the suffering people with terminal illnesses people incur due to their illnesses. The person must be a mentally competent adult with a diagnosis of an illness that gives the person less than six months or fewer to live. They can voluntarily request medication that will hasten their inevitable death.
Currently, eight states plus the District of Columbia allow physician-assisted suicide. Two physicians must agree on the prognosis of fewer than six months to live. An individual must also wait between giving their consent for physician-assisted suicide and receiving their medication to help end their life.
There are lots of faith-based arguments against physician-assisted suicide. Others also claim that people don’t actually have the autonomy over their deaths that the pro-PAS side argues since the person technically relies on another person. In addition, anti-PAS people say that this form of suicide can lead to a slippery slope to euthanasia of people without their consent.
Finally, people claim that PAS goes against the Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm” doctors must take before they start practicing medicine.
There are reasonable arguments against these claims, such as a physician must also consent to facilitate suicide, the Hippocratic Oath can be modified to fit a patient’s needs, and it’s highly unlikely that euthanasia will follow PAS (it hasn’t so far).
Still, this highly emotional practice still isn’t the norm in most areas in the United States because it’s so controversial and ethically ambiguous.
Editing a Child’s Genome
Genome editing involves the technique of going into an organism’s genetic make-up and making a change for a specific purpose. This can be used to alleviate genetic traits that could cause a child illness when they’re born.
But from this technology, also known as CRISPR, people say that it could lead to people creating “designer babies,” or infants that have been edited to be genetically superior to other infants. This goes beyond fixing the occasional genetic anomaly to help a child live a healthier life but making a child genetically stronger, smarter, more talented in certain skills, and more.
Some argue that if parents can afford it, they should be able to do what they want to give their child the best life possible. Others argue that the child has no say in their genetic manipulation, so a child enhanced to be a fast runner essentially has their parents seal their fate for them.
We’re still a long way off before designer babies become the mainstream, but the ethical issues behind the practice have not been lost on the medical community.
There are many more ethical issues in the world that this list couldn’t cover. But we hope you found the top issues on this list fascinating and worth mulling over.