Foundations of Ethical Thinking

Foundations of Ethical ThinkingIn our series on Performance Character we have looked to Performance Character and Ethical Thinking. In the transition to moral agency, we go over the foundations of ethical thinking and some go-to strategies for ethical action.

We understand that ethics are our guides to right and wrong, and often called “moral” guides, for they are based on moral values and moral rules which we have internalised. We have inner distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. We might call our ethics our personal science of morality, for we use ethics to evaluate our own conduct, action and behaviour into good and bad, right and wrong. We can evaluate our motivations, for we are homo sapiens, the erect animal with the faculty of sapienta, wisdom.

When we look to thinking, we know this is using the mind to consider something carefully. Thinking represents our capacity to reason, and thinking makes inferences, decisions and judgements. We can ponder an issue, apply reason, and reflect on all the possible outcomes. We then choose our action on the basis of both our thinking and our moral guides, our values – personal guides to action. This is done in accord with our conscience.

Conscience is that inner obligation within us to do the right thing. Conscience is conformity to our sense of right conduct. It is motivated by ethical and moral principles, those guides to action. When we don’t follow our conscience, then we have a sense of guilt, an inner reminder that we have not done the right thing. Guilt is the very strong indicator of our conscience at work.

When people attribute character to us, they observe and determine our intentions on the basis of evidence we supply: our words, our actions, which are guided by our values. When we have thoughts, words and actions together in alignment, we have personal integrity, a state of inner purity. (This cannot be applied to matters that we know are intrinsically wrong and evil.) When we act with integrity, there is righteousness in action, there is human flourishing. Where there is human flourishing, there is an interior environment of peace and satisfaction.

When people are questioned about their actions based on righteousness (whatever the foundation of right conduct is for them, whatever faith system – moral tradition or philosophy of life they follow) we frequently find:

  • a sustained commitment to moral ideals
  • a consistency between one’s ideals and means of achieving them
  • a willingness to sacrifice self-interest
  • a capacity to inspire others
  • a humility about one’s own importance.


Principles (or values) that lead to the commitment to moral ideals, sacrifice of self interest, inspiration and humility are transcendent. This means they are known and found in all times and all places. Such principles or values – guides to human action – are truth, righteousness (or right conduct), love, peace and non-violence. These are found in all cultures that have flourished and survived with transformation into the Anthropocene.

So what are these principles, how do they work? Sean Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, explains this idea in contemporary, youth-friendly language:

We are all familiar with the effects of gravity. Throw a book up in the air and it comes down. That is a natural law or a principle. Just as there are principles that rule the physical world, there are principles that rule the human world. Principles aren’t religious. They aren’t American or Chinese. They aren’t mine or yours. They aren’t up for discussion. They apply equally to everybody: rich or poor, king or peasant, male or female. They can’t be bought or sold. If you live by these principles, you will excel. If you break them, you will fail.

Part of the ethical equipment most people need in order to make good decisions in the nitty-gritty of moral living is a series of “ethical tests” — questions they can ask themselves when faced with a moral decision. Below are nine such tests (similar to the Four-Way Test promoted by Rotary International) we can offer for your consideration:

1. The Golden Rule (reversibility) test: Would I want people to do this to me?
2. The fairness test: Is this fair to everybody who might be affected by my actions?
3. The what-if-everybody-did-this test: Would I want everyone to do this (lie, cheat, steal, be a litterbug, etc.)? Would I want to live in that kind of world?
4. The truth test: Does this action represent the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
5. The parents test: How would my parents feel if they found out I did this? What advice would they give me if I asked them if I should do it?
6. The religion test: If I have religious beliefs, how do they apply to this action? What would a respected member of my religion advise? Are there any religious texts that I could draw on for guidance?
7. The conscience test: Does this go against my conscience? Will I feel guilty afterwards?
8. The consequences test: Might this action have bad consequences, such as damage to relationships or loss of self-respect, now or in the future? Might I come to regret doing this?
9. The front-page test: How would I feel if my action were reported on the front page of my local paper?

So our competence as an ethical thinker relies on moral discernment, a strong personal identity and that determination to live life well. What kind of a person do you want to be? How do you become that kind of person? What do you do, how do you get from today to that person who has respect, dignity, good character and integrity? Ethical thinking is based on good judgement, which leads to strong character formation which is founded on robust conscience formation. The above-mentioned ethical tests lead to moral reasoning. We can use them to find our values, to strengthen our conscience, and evaluate why some action or other is good, and evaluate why the alternative is not good for me. We can exercise our muscles at the gym and on the sports field, we can exercise our moral muscles in everyday life by examining our actions, our motivations.

When we ask ourselves, “Why is it good?” we can base our reply on experience, reason, our earlier outcomes, and arrive at an inner clarity of right and wrong. The foundations are parents, family, beliefs, religion, exposure to other situations and outcomes, and other forms of evaluation. We build a sense of obligation within, an obligation to ourselves, society and culture, This is what forms the foundation of human flourishing.


Foundations of Ethical Thinking




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