According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, ethics can be
- "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad or right and
- "a group of moral principles or set of values," or
- "the principles of conduct governing an individual or a profession:
standards of behavior"
Lindsey and Prentice (1985)
elaborate the definition:
Ethics is a system of values and rules that spell out what is right and
what is good. It "is primarily concerned with the rightness, goodness, and
obligatory character or 'oughtness' of conduct." Ethics directly asks
what kinds of acts are right or wrong, good or bad, or ought or ought not to
be done, and what the terms involved mean.
Woodward (1990) introduces ethical reasoning by looking
at the contexts in which we use it. For instance, she notes there are
different ways to approach this question: "Why did Person P do Action A?"
- Sociology: We could focus on Person P's
- Psychology: We could look for Person P's subconscious
- Ethics: We could focus on Action A instead of Person P.
Was Action A right or wrong? Under what circumstances would it be right or wrong?
focus on the rightness or wrongness of the action itself, ethical reasoning
Two families of ethical theories are consequentialism
(Woodward, 1990; for an abundance of alternative theories, browse the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Consequentialist ethics are based on results. For
- an egoist considers good that action
that brings the best results for himself or herself
- an altruist seeks the best results for
- a utilitarian seeks the best results
for everybody, including him- or herself
One problem with consequentialist ethics is the difficulty of predicting all
the results of any given action. (Woodward asks, "How can one determine
what is best even for oneself, let alone what is best for everyone?") One
possible solution is rule
consequentialism: develop the rules in advance, at leisure, and apply them
when the situation comes up.
Deontological ethics rely on rules; they
are based on rights, duties, and obligations. The word "deontological"
comes from the Greek deon, or duty; in ancient Greece, duties were defined by
class (Woodward, 1990). Kant's categorical imperative is an example of
deontological ethics. One formulation of it is that "You should act so that
you could consistently will that everyone act the same" (Woodward, 1990);
another is that you should never treat another human as a means to an end, but
always as an end in him or herself (Bodi, 1998). An example of
deontological ethics is the reasoning used by framers of the U.S. Constitution
to support the rights of man. They started with the "nature of man"
and derived rights, by ethical implication, from that nature: if "man"
is "essentially rational," then "he" has a natural right to
what's needed to exercise his rationality.
It is difficult to phrase maxims to guide ethical decision making, and one
problem with deontological ethics is that such maxims come into conflict. One
solution is to develop a hybrid ethical theory, using consequentialist reasoning
to resolve conflicts between the rights and obligations we all have.
Do library users have a right
to view what they wish on the Internet? Do librarians have a right to work in
a friendly environment, free of sexual harassment? If so, how should a
librarian react when a patron downloads offensive or threatening material and
displays it on the library's terminal? What kind of ethical reasoning
would you apply to this situation?
The American Library Association's Code
of Ethics states that librarians "uphold the principles of
intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources,"
but it also states that we "treat co-workers and other colleagues with
respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that
safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions."
Can these ethical mandates come into conflict?
Virginia Pear filed an EEOC
complaint against the Minneapolis Public Library in 2000, stating "that
the Library's policy of allowing unrestricted Internet access of sexually
explicit and pornographic materials [had] created an intimidating, hostile and
offensive working environment" for her and 11 co-workers who also
Was this an intellectual
freedom issue, a hostile workplace issue, or a patron
In our Advisory Committee's list of suggestions, the abbreviation "vs."
kept reappearing. Ethics help us mediate conflicting interests, with respect for
the rights of all involved.