Ethics is the study of why certain decisions are understood to be morally right or morally wrong, and the reasoned views behind making these judgements. Bioethics involves using an ethical approach to make decisions about biological issues.

Right or wrong?

Ethics does not often come up with “right” and “wrong” answers. However, some ethical conclusions may be more valid than others. A conclusion is more likely to be valid if:

  • The arguments that lead to the particular conclusion are convincingly supported by sound reasoning
  • The arguments are conducted within a well established ethical framework
  • A reasonable degree of consensus exists about the validity of the conclusion, as confirmed by a process of genuine debate.

In other words, the decision sounds right, feels right, and after talking about it, people generally agree it’s right.

Ethical frameworks

Four frameworks commonly used to make ethical judgements are:

  • Rights and responsibilities: the rights of one imply the responsibilities (or duties) of another to ensure those rights.
  • Consequentialism: weighing the benefits and harms resulting from our actions.
  • Autonomy: should individuals have the right to choose for themselves, or does one decision count for everyone?
  • Virtue ethics: a virtue is something the community accepts as being ‘good’, such as honesty, kindness and patience. Virtue ethics emphasise decisions that are in line with these characteristics.

Reaching consensus

“Real world” ethical discussions often don’t reach any consensus for a very long time. In many ways, the discussion is the best part because it brings out the complexity of the issue and makes people aware of viewpoints they may not have otherwise considered.

Ethics in schools

Michael Reiss is a British expert on bioethics, science education, and sex education. One of the main reasons why he likes to teach about ethics is to help young people extend their critical thinking and realise what they are capable of. He believes it works best when students draw on what they already know, and then develop their thinking to find themselves reasoning in ways that they hadn’t previously appreciated.

Some scenarios

    Published 15 November 2007