Personal Ethics

Personal ethics is a category of philosophy that determines what an individual believes about morality and right and wrong. This is usually distinguished from business ethics or legal ethics. These branches of ethics come from outside organizations or governments, not the individual’s conscience. These branches of ethics occasionally overlap. Personal ethics can affect all areas of life, including family, finances and relationships.

‘Personal ethics’ is rarely identified by philosophical institutions as a formal area for philosophical investigation, but there is little doubt that the history of philosophy, west and east, includes much work about individual choices, good and bad ways of living, and articulating what may be considered guides to good living on a personal level.  That is, of course philosophers addressed good and bad values in terms of politics, culture, religion, and so on, but they also took seriously individual struggles and values involving such ordinary things as how to eat and how much to eat?  How should you devote your time?  When do you know you have a good friendship or, backing up, what is friendship and its value?  When is solitude good?  Can fasting be purifying?

Today, some might think of this as a bit too “self-helpy.” but while the commercial practice of offering lots of advice to others on how to identify your goals and achieve them (from getting the “right” person to fall in love with you to making a fortune), it should not be forgotten that much of philosophy did address persons’ ordinary practices and life choices.  To take a few examples from the ancients to the present: the following philosophers wrote books on personal well being and how to achieve it (including how much, if any alcohol it is healthy to consume): Cicero, Erasmus, Iris Murdoch, Robert Nozick.

An important point to address in the domain of personal ethics is identifying when some matter is personal in the sense of “private” as opposed to public.  An important argument has been advanced by Thomas Nagel in the essay “Concealment and Exposure,” in which he argues that, in a liberal democracy, it is important for individuals to have a zone or protected area in which they are unobserved and free to do what they like.  This is not a completely open-ended matter, but some privacy, Nagel insists, is essential.  Check out Thomas Nagel’s homepage for more.

What do you think?  What about cases in which you might think of your action as personal, but are unsure whether this is the case?  Imagine you are an American in Vietnam, and are acting rudely at a market place.  Is that an entirely personal matter, or are you (whether you like it or not) representing America?

Regarding rudeness in general, philosophers have differed on such matters.  Hobbes thought acting politely was a matter of what he called “small morals.”  They concern an independent domain in which we decide (for the sake of efficiency and getting along) to show a certain amount of cordiality.  But other thinkers, especially those inclined to religious ethics, believe that what we do in such cases can often reveal truths about our overall virtues and vices.  G.K. Chesterton thought that being nice to one another, at best, “is a shadow or reflection of great virtue.”  What do you think?
What is it that reveals your true, inner values the most?  Some propose that your values are most deeply revealed in terms of what you do economically.  Others disagree: you may have values you cannot afford.  They propose that your real values lie in how you vote.  What is your view?

Some persons will put aside their principles for the sake of being good guests.  Thus, the Dalai Lama (who now actually needs to eat some meat for health reasons) in the past would put aside his vegetarianism if he was a guest and was served meat.  Is that admirable?

Some believe that your personal values are a matter not just of how you live, act, and feel, but how you would live, act, and feel under different conditions. What if a person is non-racist and non-sexist because it is simply uncool to be either, but if in a group of friends telling racist and sexist jokes, they would join in?

Does friendship involve duties?  Could you be good friends with someone who is cruel and self-destructive?

How do you know when you are in love?